A federal judge has ruled that gay marriage in Utah may continue, making Utah the 18th state in addition to the District of Columbia where gay and lesbian couples can marry.
Judge Richard Shelby on Monday denied a request by the state that sought to halt gay marriage until the appeals process plays out.
Couples on Monday waited to marry in lines that at times stretched for blocks outside the Salt Lake City County Government Center. Some had spent the night in their cars in the parking lot to make sure they didn't miss their chance.
Well-wishers arrived with flowers, coffee and doughnuts to give to the brides and grooms waiting in the chill morning air. At midmorning a group of Christmas carolers arrived to serenade them.
For now, a state considered as one of the most conservative in the nation has joined the likes of California and New York to become the 18th where same-sex couples can legally wed.
Utah is home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was one of the leading forces behind California's short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, which voters approved in 2008. The church said Friday that it stands by its support for "traditional marriage" and that it hopes a higher court validates its belief that marriage is between a man and woman.
The state Office of the Attorney General appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to have Shelby's ruling stayed just after it was issued, said spokesman Ryan Bruckman in Salt Lake City.
The marriages will continue until the appeal is either upheld or denied, he said.
The decision drew a swift and angry reaction from Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who said he was disappointed in an "activist federal judge attempting to override the will of the people of Utah."
Gay couples began lining up to marry on Friday when Shelby overturned Utah's ban on same-sex marriage, ruling it is unconstitutional. Lines continued to be out the door in many areas as couples raced to get married for fear a stay might be issued and the wedding ended.
Jolene Abbott, 39, and her wife, Colleen Mewing, 51, were married in July in Washington State. But they got married in Salt Lake City Monday afternoon just to make extra sure they were well and truly married in their home state.
"An attorney friend of ours told us that if the appeal goes through they might still recognize the marriages that have occurred in Utah so far, but couples married outside of the state might not be recognized," she said of their decision to marry for a second time.
Utah's Bruckman doesn't think that is correct but he's not sure. "It's the million dollar question. We're in a state of flux, where Amendment 3 (which bans same sex marriage in Utah) is the law and is not the law."
"We don't have a timetable on this," Bruckman said.
Retired Utah state representative Jackie Biskupski was at the Government Center officiating at weddings on Monday. "I've done about ten today. The clerks are issuing about 45 licenses an hour and there are over 50 ministers in the building to marry people."
She believes that gay couples who are legally married elsewhere but live in Utah "need to get married in Utah to have that marriage recognized here."
Some county clerks are refusing to issue licenses to same sex couples. Other have "elected, for safety's sake, to not give out any marriage licenses at all until we know what we're required to do," said Bruckman.
Groups advocating for same sex marriage expressed pleasure at Shelby's ruling.
"We're thrilled that this decision continues the process of decisions across the country that support the right of gay and lesbian couples to get married and have their love and families protected equally under the law," said Brian Silva, executive director of Marriage Equality. The New York City-based group promotes the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry.
The 53-page ruling said the constitutional amendment Utah voters approved in 2004 violates gay and lesbian couples' rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. Shelby said the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way.
The ruling has thrust Shelby into the national spotlight. He has been on the bench for less than two years, appointed by President Obama after GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch recommended him in November 2011.
Shelby served in the Utah Army National Guard from 1988 to 1996 and was a combat engineer in Operation Desert Storm. He graduated from the University of Virginia law school in 1998 and clerked for the U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene in Utah, then spent about 12 years in private practice before he became a judge.
Contributing: The Associated Press