WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a last-minute order delaying same-sex marriages in Virginia, less than a day before officials there were to begin providing marriage licenses to gay couples.
The move came a week after the federal appeals court that struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage refused to delay the effects of its ruling, and it increased the pressure on the Supreme Court to address the issue when its term begins in October.
“It is time for the Supreme Court to affirm what more than 30 courts have held in the past year: Marriage discrimination violates the Constitution, harms families and is unworthy of America,” Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said on Wednesday.
The stay was outlined in a one-page document and provided no clues about the court’s intentions. It was not a surprise; a month ago, the court made a similar decision, saying that Utah was not required to recognize the marriages of about 1,000 same-sex couples while state officials pursued appeals of a lower-court ruling that had allowed the marriages to take place.
Opponents of same-sex marriage praised the court’s decision to block Virginia county clerks from granting marriage licenses to gay couples.
Byron Babione, a lawyer at Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group that represented one of the Virginia clerks, said a Supreme Court decision would settle the confusion created by various court orders for and against same-sex marriage.
“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.
Carl W. Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said that the Supreme Court probably wanted to hear the reasoning of more appeals courts before deciding to take a gay marriage case. So far, every appellate ruling has favored allowing gay couples to marry, and proponents have won more than two dozen victories in courts across the United States.
Tobias said that split decisions would be “difficult for the court to tolerate” on gay marriage because of the national implications of the issue. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond, Virginia, ruled in July that same-sex couples could be legally married in Virginia. A group of county clerks appealed, but last week the appeals court denied their request for a delay and said the marriages could go forward, beginning Thursday.
The attorney general in Virginia, Mark R. Herring, a Democrat, has refused to defend the state’s ban.