WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ordered a halt Monday to same-sex marriages in Utah, sending a go-slow signal as it suspended a federal district judge's decision that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.
The terse order came with no dissents, suggesting justices are not ready to recognize a right to gay marriage nationwide and reluctant to allow a lower court to nudge them into answering a legal question they carefully avoided in two landmark gay-rights rulings last year.
"If this means anything, it means they want a little more time to decide this," said Cornell law professor Michael Dorf, a former court clerk. "And this order guarantees that."
The order puts a stop to the issuance of new marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples in Utah while the state appeals to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. About a thousand marriage licenses were issued over the past two weeks after the judge's Dec. 20 ruling.
The appeals court is expected to rule later this year, probably meaning the losing side won't get a final decision from the Supreme Court before 2015.
Monday's order, which one gay-rights advocate likened to hitting the "pause button," came as a surprise and disappointment to some. It also left the legal unions of gay and lesbian couples in doubt while the state debates whether to uphold or invalidate marriages conducted before Monday's Supreme Court stay.
"It is very unfortunate that so many Utah citizens have been put into this legal limbo," said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. He said his office was "carefully evaluating the legal status of the marriages that were performed since the district court's decision and will not rush to a decision that impacts Utah citizens so personally."
Gay marriage has been steadily gaining acceptance in opinion polls, state legislatures and state courts. Currently, 17 states allow same-sex couples to marry, but at least 28 states -- including Utah and Pennsylvania -- have constitutional provisions that limit marriage to a man and a woman.
Last week, Utah's attorney general sought a temporary stay from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has jurisdiction over such requests from the state. She referred it to the entire Supreme Court, which granted the stay.
The short, one-paragraph order offered no clues about how justices might ultimately rule. Some legal experts said if the court had refused to issue the stay, it might have been seen as a strong indication that justices were ready to go further than they had in June.