By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, Jan 6 (Reuters) - The U.S Supreme Court on Monday halted gay marriage in Utah at least temporarily by granting a request from state officials appealing a lower-court ruling that had allowed same-sex weddings to go ahead in the heavily Mormon state.
The decision by the court means that gay weddings in the state are now on hold while the case is appealed to the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hundreds of gay couples in Utah have received marriage licenses since the Dec. 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby.
Shelby declined to stay his ruling pending appeal, meaning gay couples were able to marry in the state immediately. The appeals court also declined to stay the ruling, leaving the U.S. Supreme Court as the state's last recourse.
The appeals court has already agreed to hear the case on an expedited schedule, with a Feb. 25 deadline for court papers.
Utah became the 18th state to extend marriage rights to gay people when Shelby sided with three same-sex couples in their lawsuit challenging a voter-passed amendment to the Utah state constitution that defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
The decision came as a shock to many of Utah's 2.8 million residents, nearly two-thirds of whom are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon doctrine states that sexual relations outside opposite-sex marriage are contrary to the will of God.
Utah's stay request on the ruling came six months after the U.S. Supreme Court issued two high-profile decisions on gay marriage, one of which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Utah's stay application relies in part on the high court's June decision in United States v. Windsor, which, although it struck down DOMA, also said the definition of marriage was largely a matter of state law.
In the Windsor case, in which the court was split 5-4, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the federal law violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.
Utah's application was initially filed with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who handles emergency requests from Utah and surrounding states. She then referred the issue to the Supreme Court as a whole. Monday's order was two sentences long, with no justices writing individual opinions.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)