By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Utah will not recognize, at least for now, the marriages of gay couples who rushed to wed after a federal judge's ruling briefly legalized gay unions in the conservative, predominantly Mormon state, the governor's office said on Wednesday.
The state's decision comes as a blow to roughly 1,400 same-sex couples who tied the knot after U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled on December 20 that a state ban on gay marriage violated the U.S. Constitution. His ruling was later put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court pending an appeal.
"Based on counsel from the Attorney General's Office regarding the Supreme Court decision, state recognition of same-sex marital status is ON HOLD until further notice," Republican Governor Gary Herbert's chief of staff wrote in a statement.
Utah temporarily became the 18th U.S. state to permit gay marriage when Shelby ruled for three same-sex couples who filed a lawsuit challenging a voter-passed amendment to the Utah constitution that defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay on Monday, pending appeal of the ruling, preventing new same-sex marriages from being performed in the state. Following that decision, married same-sex couples who wed after Shelby's decision expressed concern the state might not recognize their marriages as valid.
Shelby's ruling had jolted 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, which teaches that traditional marriage is an institution ordained by God.
Las Vegas couple Reed Abplanalp-Cowan and Gregory Abplanalp-Cowan came to Utah to wed because they own property and two businesses in the state. They have three children adopted in other states and are trying to adopt a fourth - a girl - from Utah, which bars gay couples from adopting.
"I'm hurt, very hurt," said Reed Abplanalp-Cowan hours after the announcement. "I'm sad for my family personally. I'm sad for the impact on my children."
Salt Lake City couple Paul and Tony Butterfield married in California in 2008 but their union was not recognized in Utah, and on December 23 they wed again in that state. They called their attorney on Wednesday seeking advice about what to do, as did the Abplanalp-Cowans.
"For the governor to just overturn a court-mandated judgment just blows my mind," said Paul Butterfield, who is raising 11-year-old twin boys with his partner of 18 years.
The American Civil Liberties of Utah, which supports the effort to bring gay marriage to the state, expressed disappointment in Utah's decision not to recognize the weddings performed in recent weeks.
The governor's office, in explaining how the state would handle the existing marriages, said state agencies should follow "current laws that prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex marriages."
As an example of how the policy would be applied, it said that if a married same-sex couple in Utah had already changed their names on their drivers' licenses the changes would not be revoked, but such couples would not be able to now apply to change their names on the state-issued identification.
Salt Lake City-based family law attorney Tanya Peters said she thinks Utah acted irresponsibly, saying she had expected Utah to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the scope of its stay order before deciding it would not recognize same-sex marriages.
"Now what happens is that the state of Utah has opened itself up to civil rights lawsuits," said Peters, who said she has already been called by both gay friends and clients seeking advice. "You can't just simply wave a wand and say those marriages don't exist."
Bill Duncan, director of the conservative Marriage Law Foundation in Utah, said he was not surprised by Utah's decision. "I don't know that the governor had many options. That period during which there was no (judicial) stay issued created a lot of uncertainty," he said.
University of Utah law professor Clifford Rosky said the state's decision could leave gay couples and their families in limbo for months, if not years, by interrupting applications for health insurance or retirement benefits for state employees and halting adoption petitions of some families.
"This is an unprecedented step, which inflicts severe harm on more than 1,000 families," Rosky said. "The state has not been harmed at all by recognizing these marriages, but the harm to these families as a result of having the protections of marriage taken away is devastating."
It is not known how many Utah couples sought benefits from state or federal agencies or private entities like banks or insurance companies over the past few weeks. Herbert's office said it has directed state agencies not to proceed with granting any new requests for benefits from newly married gay couples. There was no word on what would happen to requests already pending.
Rosky said federal agencies and private companies could decide on their own whether to grant marriage benefits.
"It would be hard for me to believe that the federal government would not recognize these marriages," he said. "They were authorized by a federal court order and issued in accordance with Utah law at the time."
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernadette Baum, Steve Orlofsky and Cynthia Osterman)