Same-sex couples will have to wait longer to begin marrying in Virginia after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to delay an appeals court ruling striking down the state's gay marriage ban.
The nation's highest court granted a request from a county clerk in Virginia to delay a decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that would have allowed for same-sex couples to marry beginning Thursday morning. The state would have also had to start recognizing gay marriages from out of state.
The Supreme Court provided no explanation for its order.
The federal appeals court last week refused to delay its decision striking down the ban, issued in late July, while it is appealed to the high court. The appeals court's order did not explain why it denied that request.
The Supreme Court's decision was not unexpected, as it previously issued an order in January putting same-sex unions on hold in Utah while the federal appeals court for that region was hearing the case. That court upheld the decision striking down Utah's gay marriage ban, but delayed its decision from taking effect pending appeal to the Supreme Court. Most other federal court decisions in favour of same-sex marriage also have been put on hold.
Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2006 that banned gay marriage and prohibited the recognition of such marriages performed in other states.
By granting the delay, the Supreme Court is making clear that it "believes a dignified process is better than disorder," said Byron Babione, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group.
Supporters of same-sex marriage were disappointed, saying gay and lesbian couples have waited long enough to marry.
"Loving couples – and families – should not have to endure yet another standstill before their commitment to one another is recognized here in Virginia," James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement.
The appeals court ruling overturning that ban was the third such ruling by a federal appeals court and the first in the South, a region where the rising tide of rulings favouring marriage equality is testing concepts of states' rights and conservative moral values that have long held sway.
Earlier this year, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that as many as 7,100 same-sex Virginia couples could get married within three years of a change in law. That's based on 2010 Census figures showing Virginia had 14,243 same-sex couples.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has said he will not defend the state's ban and believes the courts ruled correctly in striking it down.
In a conference call with reporters, Herring said he understood that some might be disappointed. However, there is cause for optimism "that ultimately when the Supreme Court hears our case or whether it hears another one of these cases, that it will strike down these discriminatory bans."
The Virginia lawsuit was filed by Timothy Bostic and Tony London, who were denied a marriage licence, and Carol Schall and Mary Townley. The women were married in California and wanted their marriage recognized in the statewhere they are raising a 16-year-old daughter.
A panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati recently considered arguments regarding six cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Some observers have said the 6th Circuit may be the first to uphold statewide gay marriage bans after more than 20 consecutive rulings in the past eight months striking them down.