WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday unexpectedly dismissed appeals in five states seeking to keep same-sex marriage bans, a move that effectively expanded the right of gay couples to marry to 30 states.
The announcement, which came a decade after Massachusetts became the first state to approve same-sex marriage, meant that a much-awaited showdown over the legality of same-sex marriage nationwide may not get settled this Supreme Court term. But the immediate impact of the court’s action still proved dramatic.
It set off a flurry of ceremonies and social-media celebrations in five states where gay marriage was suddenly legal, and anticipation in six more that are likely to be affected by the decision.
A smiling pair in Indiana flashed their marriage license at an applauding crowd. One man touched his heart in Utah as he kissed his new husband. A couple in Virginia rushed to a local City Hall so quickly they arrived in T-shirts.
“It’s huge news, it’s fantastic news, it’s absolutely game-changing news,” said Joshua Block, the staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Gay Lesbian Transgender Bisexual Project. “It sends an extremely strong signal to other courts that if they don’t strike down gay marriage bans, then it’s very likely the Supreme Court will do it for them.”
Opponents vowed to continue the fight against gay marriage. Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, called the move “judicial activism at its worst.”
County clerks or state officials in the five states — Indiana, Wisconsin, Utah, Oklahoma, and Virginia — had asked justices to review decisions by appeals courts that overruled bans on gay marriage.
The Supreme Court did not explain its decision or provide roll call votes. Under court rules, four of nine justices must agree to put a case on the docket. By rejecting the petitions, the court let stand appeals court rulings against gay marriage bans in those five states. Marriages there were allowed to begin almost immediately.
Six states tied to the same circuit courts — Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming — are expected to follow the same decision.
Also as a result, same-sex couples who wed in Massachusetts could find their marriages recognized in these 11 new states, bringing the total to 30, plus the District of Columbia.
But the decision also frustrated both sides, many of whom thought the issue’s national resonance would spur justices to issue a direct ruling on whether states must recognize same-sex marriage.
“There was a sense of anticipation that by the end of June the whole question would be resolved and the whole country would be free,” said Gary Buseck, legal director of Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. “Odds are that a national resolution may not come as quickly as we thought.”
But it could come. In the petitions the court opted not to review, gay marriage groups won in appellate courts. Justices could take a case if a federal court makes the opposite determination. A decision is pending in the Sixth Circuit, which includes Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. Other same-sex marriage cases are advancing through the system.
“I hope when they get to this decision — it’s not if, it’s when — they’ll make the right one,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of Woburn-based Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes gay marriage.
Some justices have signaled the court will take its time. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said earlier this year the court did not need to rush into the issue .
Many observers, however, believed justices would seize the opportunity by adding one of the petitions to the court docket and ruling directly on gay marriage. A year ago, the court struck down part of a law that barred the federal government from providing benefits to married gay couples.
The court’s actions come amid the country’s widening acceptance of same-sex marriage. Polls have increasingly shown Americans favor legalizing gay marriage. No state ballot initiatives will address gay marriage this November.
“It’s been the great nonissue of 2014,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “There are so many other things that people are worried about and concerned about today that it doesn’t scratch.”
Few key Republicans highlighted the issue on Monday. Those who did comment focused on championing state’s rights over federal mandates.
“The implications of forcing any state to redefine marriage have far-reaching effects,” House Republican Policy Committee chairman James Lankford said in a statement. The Oklahoman called marriage “a unique cultural relationship that has long-standing tradition and societal meaning” and said that should not change through the courts.
House Speaker John Boehner, who last year emphasized he would not alter his belief that marriage should be recognized only between a man and a woman, had no comment on the Supreme Court’s decision, according to his spokesman.
“It’s a pretty strong signal for other courts of appeals looking at this issue that it’s over and done with,” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont said in an interview. “It’s the civil rights issue of this generation. ”
Although the court issued no direct ruling, it still left an impact, said Dori Bernstein, director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Supreme Court Institute.
“It’s a nondecision that’s in effect a huge decision,” she said.