The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday delayed a lower court decision allowing same-sex marriage in Virginia, meaning gay and lesbian couples will not be able to tie the knot beginning Thursday.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who got the request for a stay last week, referred the matter to the full nine-member court. If the court did not stay the decision, a Norfolk judge's ruling tossing Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage would have taken effect at 8 a.m.
"The application for stay presented to The Chief Justice and by him referred to the Court is granted, and the issuance of the mandate of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit … is stayed pending the timely filing and disposition of (a formal petition for appeal)," the court wrote.
Aside from Virginia, the Supreme Court's ruling means gay and lesbian couples in three other states in the federal circuit — North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia — also won't be able to get married in the coming days.
Instead, the high court isn't expected to hear the same-sex marriage issue until sometime next spring at the earliest, a scenario that would put off a final ruling on the controversial issue until later in 2015.
Most legal experts expected the stay — which was in line with how the Supreme Court previously handled a very similar case in Utah. The ruling means court clerks, ministers, and marriage commissioners across Virginia won't get a boon in wedding traffic over the coming weeks.
In February, U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen, based in Norfolk, tossed Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage, ruling it unconstitutional under provisions on equal protection and due process of law.
In late July, Allen's ruling was upheld 2-1 by a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Earlier this month, that panel rejected a request from a Christian rights organization, the Alliance Defending Freedom, to delay the decision.
The Alliance then appealed to the Supreme Court.
In recent weeks, the state registrar's office, court clerks and the Virginia Supreme Court's executive secretary's office were working to prepare for the change, such as ensuring that marriage license forms would say "Spouse 1" and "Spouse 2" instead of "Bride" and "Groom."
The Alliance, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., was gratified with Wednesday's ruling.
"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," said Byron Babione, the group's senior counsel. "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."
He added: "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."
The plaintiffs in the case had argued against a stay, saying Wright Allen's ruling should go into immediate effect. But the case's lead plaintiffs, Tim Bostic and Tony London of Norfolk, have said they were not going to get married this week even if they could.
Instead, they said they would wait until the Supreme Court makes its final ruling.
"Tony and I look forward to the day that we can finally be married in our home state," Bostic said 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 … It is time for all Americans to be able to enjoy the freedom to marry."
The American Foundation for Equal Rights, the California group spearheading the case with legal funding and support for the plaintiffs, expressed confidence the ultimate ruling will toss gay marriage bans across the country.
"We are confident that when the Supreme Court reviews the Bostic case, it too will agree and end the flagrant injustice of segregating Americans based on sexual orientation," David Boies, of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, LLP, one of the law firms working with the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
Aside from the Alliance, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring — a strong proponent since taking office in January of the right to same-sex marriage — had also sought a stay.
Herring had asserted that Virginia could have been left with an "intractable" legal morass if gay couples were allowed to wed now and then the Supreme Court ultimately ruled the other way. Unwinding such marriages, Herring said, would create havoc with such issues as adoptions, tax returns, and inheritances.