By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Gay and lesbian couples proceeded to exchange wedding vows in Utah for a fourth day as the federal judge who legalized same-sex marriage in the state refused on Monday to set aside his own decision while the issue remained under court review.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby, who struck down Utah's ban on same-sex matrimony as unconstitutional late last week, said the state has failed to meet the legal standards required for him to stay that ruling pending appeal.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert has already filed a formal notice of his intention to appeal the ruling on its merits, even as some 900 couples lined up early on Monday to obtain marriage licenses from the county clerk's office in Salt Lake City.
First in line were Sarah Friese, 31, and her partner, Veronica Christensen, 32, who had been waiting in the cold since Sunday evening for the building to open so they could get a license and exchange vows.
"We didn't want to miss our chance," said Friese, a computer specialist.
Ministers and others empowered to solemnize weddings in the state dotted the stairwells of the Salt Lake County administrative building, performing marriages on the spot as couples received their licenses.
The very first same-sex couples to take advantage of Shelby's decision did so on Friday, and the procession of gay nuptials continued through the weekend.
But the Salt Lake City-based gay rights group Utah Pride reported that clerks in at least four of Utah's 29 counties were still refusing to issue marriage licenses or had closed their offices altogether in order to avoid complying with the judge's order.
"I definitely think this is grounds for a lawsuit," said Megan Risbon, an events director for the group. "From my understanding of Judge Shelby's ruling, they are violating the law."
Cache County officials issued a statement acknowledging they had closed the clerk's office there "until further notice" so that they could "sort out the legal issues and confusion created in the wake of judge Shelby's opinion."
Calls by Reuters to the clerk's offices in three other counties - Box Elder, Carbon and Utah - went unanswered.
THIRD REQUEST FOR STAY
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver was expected to act imminently on a request by state officials to block Shelby's ruling and bring a halt to further same-sex marriages during the appeals process.
The appeals court has already refused twice to stay Shelby's ruling of last Friday, but his decision on Monday refusing to suspend his own order pending appeal raised the issue again.
Utah's Acting Attorney General Brian Tarbet said his office would vigorously contest Shelby's ruling.
"We're doing that because it's important that the voice of the people be maintained, and we are going to do that cognizant of the fact that this is very emotional for many of our citizens on both sides," Tarbet said.
Utah became the 18th state to extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians when Shelby sided with three same-sex couples in their lawsuit challenging a voter-passed amendment to the Utah Constitution that defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. Shelby ruled that the exclusion violated gay couples' rights to due process and equal protection.
"I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah," Herbert said in a statement after the ruling.
Advocates of gay marriage have won repeated victories in recent years as a growing portion of the American electorate has taken a more favorable view of same-sex relationships.
A year and a half ago, just six states and the District of Columbia recognized same-sex unions.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a landmark victory for gay rights by overturning a federal law that barred federal benefits for same-sex marriages in states where such marriages are legal.
On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court decided to allow same-sex marriage across the state. In November, the governors of Hawaii and Illinois signed legislation to legalize same-sex weddings in their states.
(Additional reporting by Robert Boczkiewicz in Denver and Victoria Cavaliere in New York; Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Edith Honan, Bernadette Baum, Cynthia Osterman and Ken Wills)