WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court blocked gay and lesbian couples from marrying in Virginia Wednesday as it edges closer to deciding whether same-sex marriage should be legalized nationwide.
The order puts on hold a federal appeals court's verdict last month striking down the state's ban on gay marriage. That case was brought by Norfolk residents Timothy Bostic and Tony London, who were denied a marriage license by Norfolk Clerks of Courts George Shaefer. The order is pending a "timely filing" of an appeal to the Supreme Court and the court agreeing to hear the case.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond ruled 2-1 last month that gay men and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry. The ruling affirmed the decision a Norfolk federal judge rendered in February.
"We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable," said Judge Henry Floyd, originally appointed a district judge by George W. Bush and elevated to the circuit court by President Obama. "However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws."
An attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom representing Prince William County asked the Supreme Court to stay that decision.
ADF Senior Counsel Byron Babione said “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. By granting our request to place a hold on the 4th Circuit’s decision, the Supreme Court is making clear, as it already did in the Utah marriage case, that it believes a dignified process is better than disorder. The Supreme Court acted wisely in restraining the lower court from implementing a ruling of this magnitude before the high court has a chance to decide the issue.”
While nearly all federal and state courts have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage since the high court issued two landmark decisions in June 2013, judges have blocked nearly all such marriages while the cases are appealed.
“Tony and I look forward to the day that we can finally be married in our home state,” said Tim Bostic, Plaintiff in a statement. “While we are disappointed that marriages will have to wait, this was not unexpected. We feel that this case deserves to be heard by the Supreme Court and be finally decided for all Americans. 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.”
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. It remains illegal in the remaining 31 states, although Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin allow domestic partnerships or civil unions.
The first petitions seeking Supreme Court review were filed earlier this month in what appears to be a race to the nation's highest court. While Virginia's appeal has yet to be filed, proponents of gay marriage there -- including the state itself -- asked the justices to treat opponents' request to block marriages as an appeal of the case, which would speed up the process.
The justices will get their first crack at the broader issue in late September, when they meet privately to consider petitions that accumulated through the summer. They could grant one or more gay marriage cases for the 2014 term or wait for additional appeals.
While state Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, had sided with proponents, he urged the Supreme Court to block same-sex marriages until the issue is ultimately decided.
"A stay is warranted in light of the negative impact on Virginia children, families, and businesses if the Supreme Court eventually rules against marriage equality and forces an unwinding of Virginians' marriages, adoptions, inheritances, or workplace benefits," Herring said.