The Supreme Court has put same-sex marriages on hold in Utah while a federal appeals court considers the issue. The court has issued a brief order blocking any new same-sex unions in the state.
More than 900 gay and lesbian couples have married since Dec. 20, when a federal judge ruled that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage violates gay and lesbian couples’ constitutional rights.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
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I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, a look at the frigid weather across much of the country. In the Dakotas, drivers are being urged to carry winter survival kits in case they get stranded. More than 400 flights have been canceled today at Chicago's airports, hundreds more canceled across the country, just because of the cold. We'll check in on the ground in Kansas City, Mo.
CHAKRABARTI: But first, in Washington, the Supreme Court has ordered a temporary block on gay marriages in Utah until a federal appeals court rules on the issue. In late December, a district court judge struck down a 2004 Utah voter referendum that banned same-sex marriage there, saying the ban violated constitutional equal protection laws. The state of Utah had appealed that ruling, but over 900 same-sex couples have married in the state in the interim.
An attorney for the plaintiffs seeking the right to same-sex marriage in the underlying case called today's Supreme Court ruling, quote, "disappointing." Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times, is with us. And Adam, first of all explain to us exactly what has the court said and what this ruling does.
ADAM LIPTAK: So it said almost nothing. There was no reasoning in the decision. All it said is it's going to freeze the state of play until the appeals go forward. It's not going to let same-sex couples in Utah get married. Not clear what that means for the existing thousand or so marriages, but I wouldn't read too much into it about what either the appeals court or the Supreme Court will ultimately do on the question of whether these folks have a right to be married.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so I understand now that this case goes back to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which has already issued at least one ruling that declined a stay on the original ruling that overturned the ban on same-sex marriage in Utah.
LIPTAK: That's right. A two-judge panel of the court refused to block marriages while the case goes forward, and that's what the Supreme Court overturned. But again, I wouldn't read too much into that. We don't know whether those particular judges will sit on the three-judge panel that hears the case in a few weeks, and we don't know what the 10th Circuit is going to do.
So they're really on two tracks. One is what do you do while the case moves forward, and the other is what's the answer to the question of is there a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, and I wouldn't confuse the two.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so let's take the first one then. There were, in the last couple weeks of December, while that ban was at least temporarily lifted in Utah, some 900-plus couples got married. So what does today's Supreme Court ruling do to their marriages?
LIPTAK: It doesn't tell us, and there are really precedents cutting both ways, both out of California. In the early days of same-sex marriage, when some people in San Francisco got married maybe a decade ago, those marriages were voided. But later, before Prop 8 stopped marriages in California, 18,000 California couples got married, and those marriages were sustained even as the case moved forward. So it's hard to know.
CHAKRABARTI: Now Adam, as you well know, and listeners will remember, last year the court heard two very big blockbuster cases on gay marriage, and you just mentioned them. One of them was of course on California's Proposition 8, and the other one on the Federal Defense of Marriage Act. Are there new legal issues at play here in Utah, or are we sort of covering familiar ground once again?
LIPTAK: The real question is what to make of the Supreme Court's Defense of Marriage Act decision, which was a gay rights victory, but it was grounded in part in a respect for states' rights. So you remember what that case did was it said the federal government couldn't discriminate against same-sex couples married in those states that allowed same-sex marriage because the court said marriage is a matter for the states to decide.
So in that case, states' rights and gay rights were on the same side. In the Utah case, all of a sudden they're on different sides, where the states' rights argument would be that Utah voters are allowed to decide what they want to call marriage. The gay rights argument, of course, is that people should be treated fairly and equitably, and same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples should both be allowed to be married. So in a way the question is what - which direction did the court mean to signal in that Defense of Marriage Act case.
CHAKRABARTI: Is there any way to know? Because as I understand historically, marriage has been the province of the states.
LIPTAK: You know, one thing we know is that this issue is moving very fast. Polling numbers, particularly among young people, are now showing overwhelming support for same-sex marriage. In the past year or so, we've gone from nine states plus the District of Columbia to - if this Utah ruling is upheld - 18 states plus the District of Columbia.
The Supreme Court is seldom very much out of step with the American public. So that gives you the sense that should this issue land at the court after some more states were to adopt it, you might well get a Supreme Court inclined to find a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
CHAKRABARTI: Adam Liptak is Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times. Adam, thank you so much.
LIPTAK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.