on Wednesday blocked a court order that would have allowed gay marriages in Virginia to begin Thursday, adding to the likelihood the justices will decide the issue themselves in the coming term.
The brief order by the court contained no explanation for its rationale, but it was not a surprise because the court had previously blocked a similar ruling that would have allowed gay marriages in Utah.
Supporters of gay marriage said Wednesday's stay underscored the need for the high court to make a definitive ruling on the issue by next year.
"It is time for the Supreme Court to affirm what more than 30 courts have held in the past year: marriage discrimination violates the Constitution, harms families, and is unworthy of America," said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, which advocates for same-sex marriage.
Plaintiffs in the case, Tim Bostic and Tony London of Norfolk, Va., issued a statement saying they were disappointed, but not surprised.
"Tony and I look forward to the day that we can finally be married in our home state," Bostic said. "We feel that this case deserves to be heard by the Supreme Court and be finally decided for all Americans."
There has been a drumbeat of federal court decisions ruling that state laws banning same-sex marriages are unconstitutional, putting pressure on the justices to decide the issue. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the federal
On July 28, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond by a 2-1 vote said "Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the 14th Amendment cannot countenance."
That court subsequently refused to stop its ruling from going into effect pending appeal. Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group representing a Virginia county court clerk opposed to implementing the ruling, asked the justices to intervene.
Allowing marriages to proceed before the issue is resolved "would invite needless chaos and uncertainty rather than facilitate the orderly and dignified resolution of a constitutional question of enormous national importance," the group said.
Virginia Atty. Gen. Mark R. Herring, a Democrat, had refused to defend the law. But he told the justices Monday that he agreed they should stay the 4th Circuit ruling and urged them to expedite a final ruling.
Herring later told reporters in a conference call the stay would prevent potential "legal confusion": If marriages were to take place only to be invalidated by the final ruling, he said, that could call into question the validity of any adoptions, for example, that those couples may perform in the interim.
The justices could decide as soon as September to put the issue on their docket for a ruling by June 2015.