SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that gay marriages can continue in Utah, denying a request from the state to halt same-sex weddings until the appeals process plays out.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the state's request for an emergency stay on a federal judge's ruling that found Utah's same-sex marriage ban violates gay and lesbian couples' rights.
The judge who made that ruling, U.S. District Judge Richard Shelby, refused the state's first request to put a halt to the marriages Monday.
Utah's last chance to temporarily stop the marriages would be the U.S. Supreme Court.
The appeals court ruling means county clerks can continue to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians. Nearly 700 gay couples have obtained marriage licenses since Friday, with most coming in the state's most populous county.
Utah is the 18th state where gay couples can wed, and the sight of same-sex marriages occurring just a few miles from the headquarters of the Mormon church has provoked anger among the state's top leaders.
"Until the final word has been spoken by this Court or the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Utah's marriage laws, Utah should not be required to enforce Judge Shelby's view of a new and fundamentally different definition of marriage," the state said in a motion to the appeals court.
Shelby's decision to strike down a law passed by voters in 2004 drew attention given Utah's long-standing opposition to gay marriage and its position as headquarters for the Mormon church.
It's estimated that nearly two-thirds of Utah's 2.8 million residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons dominate the state's legal and political circles.
The Mormon church was one of the leading forces behind California's short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, which voters approved in 2008. The church said Friday it stands by its support for "traditional marriage" and hopes a higher court validates its belief that marriage is between a man and woman.
In court Monday, Utah lawyer Philip Lott repeated the words "chaotic situation" to describe what has happened in Utah since clerks started allowing gay weddings. He urged the judge to "take a more orderly approach than the current frenzy."
"Utah should be allowed to follow its democratically chosen definition of marriage," he said of the 2004 gay marriage ban.
That confusion stretched to county clerks in Utah, some of whom were refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, even though they could face legal consequences.
The Utah attorney general's office warned counties they could be held in contempt of federal court if they refuse to issue the licenses.
A spokesman for the attorney general's office, Ryan Bruckman, said the office was not giving legal guidance to clerks' offices.
In the meantime, state agencies have begun trying to sort out how the gay marriages may impact state services.
Gov. Gary Herbert's office sent a letter to state agencies Tuesday afternoon advising them to comply with the judge's ruling or consult the Utah attorney general's office if the ruling conflicts with other laws or rules.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services, which administers programs such as food stamps and welfare, is recognizing the marriages of gay couples when they apply for benefits, spokesman Nic Dunn told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
It's unclear whether Utah will allow married same-sex couples to jointly file their state income tax returns next year, as they will be able to do for federal returns.
Charlie Roberts, a spokesman for the Utah State Tax Commission, said the agency still needs to consult the Utah attorney general's office about the issue.
In October, the commission stipulated that because Utah did not recognize same-sex marriages, same-sex couples who had married out of state could not file jointly in Utah.
The state income tax forms do not currently require filers to specify gender, so it's possible same-sex couples could have already filed jointly in previous years, but Roberts said the commission never been aware of such as case.
Utah is the 18th state where gay couples can wed or will soon be able to marry. The legal wrangling over the topic will likely continue for months. The 10th Circuit will likely will hear the full appeal of the case several months from now.
Even if the 10th Circuit grants a stay or overturns the ruling, legal analyst say the marriage licenses that already have been issued probably will remain valid.