RICHMOND, Virginia — Same-sex couples will have to forget their plans to marry in Virginia — at least for now — 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 northern Virginia to delay a decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond 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 if the Supreme Court had denied the request. The court provided no explanation for its order.
The Supreme Court's decision was not unexpected, as it previously issued an order in January putting same-sex unions on hold in Utah. A federal appeals court had upheld a decision striking down Utah's ban. Most other federal court decisions in favor of same-sex marriage also have been put on hold.
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 based in Scottsdale, Arizona, that supported the challenge by the two Virginia circuit court clerks whose duties include issuing marriage licenses.
"Virginians deserve an orderly and fair resolution to the question of whether they will remain free to preserve marriage as the union of a man and a woman in their laws," Babione said in a statement.
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.
While awaiting the court's ruling, Virginia officials and some clergy members were preparing for the possibility that same-sex couples would have been able to wed by drafting a revised marriage license form for courthouse clerks. Some clerks in urban areas were also preparing for an influx of marriage license applicants by bringing in deputy clerks to assist with marriage licenses and setting up overflow rooms.
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 and past experiences with Massachusetts after gay marriage was legalized there.
Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2006 that banned gay marriage and prohibited the recognition of such marriages performed in other states. State Attorney General Mark Herring has said he will not defend the ban and believes the courts were correct in striking it down.
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 favoring marriage equality is testing concepts of states' rights and traditional, conservative moral values that have long held sway.
Herring has also supported a delay because of unintended negative consequences if the court later rules against marriage equality.
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, 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 of Norfolk, who were denied a marriage license, and Carol Schall and Mary Townley of Chesterfield County. The women were married in California and wanted their marriage recognized in the state where they are raising a 16-year-old daughter.
Bostic said in a written statement that the delay was disappointing but not unexpected.
"There are thousands of couples just like us in 30 other states waiting to get married. It is time for all Americans to be able to enjoy the freedom to marry, no matter what state they live in," Bostic said.
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.
Associated Press writers Brock Vergakis in Norfolk and Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum.