It's the third time the judge in Utah has declined to stop same-sex marriages. NBC News' Pete Williams reports.
Same-sex marriages in Utah can continue after a federal judge denied the state's request Monday to put a temporary hold on the unions.
State attorneys argued that the stay was necessary while they appeal U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby's ruling Friday that allowed gay men and lesbians to marry.
Shelby, unsurprisingly, decided not to halt his own decision. His earlier ruling had struck down a 2004 state law denying same-sex couples the right to wed, saying the ban was unconstitutional.
Jim Urquhart / Reuters
Natalie Dicou, left, and her partner, Nicole Christensen, wait for a marriage license at the Salt Lake County Clerk's office in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Friday. A federal judge struck down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.
It's the latest blow in the battle over same-sex marriage for Utah's attorney general. A federal appeals court in Denver on Sunday rejected the state's request for a stay, essentially saying Shelby must rule on the motion first.
Now that he has, the state has gone back to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to file for another emergency stay request. Acting Attorney General Brian Tarbet said the state would consider going to the Supreme Court if the appeals court doesn't grant a stay.
The appeals court gave lawyers for same-sex marriage advocates until the end of the day to respond, signaling that no higher-court decision was likely until later this week at the earliest.
Stuart Gaffney, a spokesman for Marriage Equality USA, said Shelby's upholding of same-sex marriage in Utah was "one of the greatest gifts of all" for supporters.
"It's real impossible to argue that marriage equality hurts anybody. It's now the law in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia," Gaffney told NBC News.
Eager couples continued to line up at county clerks' offices before Monday's hearing, although there were reports that at least a half-dozen counties were turning away people until the stay was resolved.
Jackie Biskupski, a former member of the Legislature who has long advocated for same-sex marriage, said outside the court Monday that the decision was "so important because there has been such divisiveness with the Mormon church."
Utah is home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was one of the leading forces behind California's short-lived ban on same-sex marriage.
"Most of the people [in Utah] are Mormon, and it's so hard on the families," Biskupski said. "Now the families will have an opportunity to really embrace their loved loved ones and say, 'I'm sorry, and you mean the world to me, and we are a family, and we'll get through this, and I'm happy for you.'"
But Assistant Attorney General Phil Lott said the state was trying to look out for the interests not only of people who are against same-sex marriage, but also of couples who enter into same-sex marriages that could be void in the future. He said Shelby's decision had created "chaos" — the same word used by Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican who has called Shelby an "activist" judge.
"A stay would have been appropriate until we have a resolution," Herbert said.
Tarbet told county clerks to check with their county attorneys if they were unsure how to proceed during the state's appeal.
"That's what the governor asked them to do in his letter of Saturday, is consult with your legal advisers," he told NBC station KSL of Salt Lake City.
Pete Williams, Stacey Klein and Robin Skolnick of NBC News contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Mon Dec 23, 2013 10:33 AM EST