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Federal court declines to halt gay marriage in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — The US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit on Tuesday rejected the state’s request to stop gay marriages in Utah.

State officials had asked for a hold on same-sex marriages while they appeal a judge’s ruling overturning the state’s ban on gay weddings. The appeals court ruling means county clerks can continue to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

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Utah state lawyers had argued that the state should not be required to abide by one judge’s narrow view of a ‘‘new and fundamentally different definition of marriage.’’

About 700 gay couples have obtained wedding licenses since US District Judge Robert J. Shelby on Friday declared Utah’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional, but lawyers for the state are trying every legal avenue to halt the practice.

On Monday, Shelby denied their bid to temporarily stop gay marriage while the appeals process plays out, and they quickly went to the 10th Circuit court.

In a separate case in Ohio, a federal judge’s decision ordering officials to recognize gay marriages on death certificates is expected to spark further litigation aimed at striking down the state’s ban on gay marriage.

Judge Timothy Black ruled Monday that Ohio’s ban is unconstitutional and that states cannot discriminate against same-sex couples simply because some voters don’t like homosexuality. The state’s attorney general said the state will appeal.

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Utah is the 18th state where gay couples can wed or will soon be able to marry, 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.

It is 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 also one of the leading forces behind California’s short-lived ban on same-sex marriage.

The legal wrangling over the topic will probably continue for months. The 10th Circuit could rule as soon as Tuesday on whether to temporarily halt the weddings, but the same court is likely to hear the full appeal of the case several months from now.

People began lining up Sunday night at the Salt Lake County clerk’s office in the hopes of getting licenses amid the uncertainty of the pending ruling by Shelby. Couples then got married once every few minutes in the lobby to the sound of string music from a violin duet.

They anxiously eyed their cellphones for news on Shelby’s decision, and a loud cheer erupted once word spread that he wouldn’t be blocking weddings.

‘‘We feel equal!’’ one man shouted; his partner called it ‘‘this magic happening out of the clear blue.’’

Adam Blatter said he was in a panic to get married Monday morning before a judge could halt the issuance of licenses. He and his partner, Joseph Chavez, were elated when it became clear their wait was worthwhile, and they were shocked that it was happening in a state long known as one of the most conservative in the country.

‘‘We expected Utah to be the last place we could get married,’’ Blatter said.

Not all counties were issuing the licenses.

In Utah County, one of the most conservative in the state, County Clerk Brian Thompson made a conscious decision to defy the judge’s ruling and not grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

He said he wanted to see if the appeals court granted the stay first.

‘‘I totally understand the position I’m in,’’ he said, ‘‘but I have a responsibility as elected official to proceed with caution.’’

The Mormon 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 the state 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.

In explaining his decision, Shelby said the state made basically the same arguments he had already rejected.

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