By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Utah's attorney general will appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court over last month's ruling by a federal appeals court that backed gay marriage in the conservative, heavily Mormon state, his office said on Wednesday.
An appeal by Utah was widely expected after the June 25 decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver that the state could not prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. That ruling was put on hold pending Utah's appeal.
The office of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said he would petition the Supreme Court in the coming week, and that the state's measure banning gay marriage was presumed to be constitutional "unless the highest courts deem otherwise."
Utah had the option of asking the entire 10th Circuit appeals court to review the ruling or taking the case directly to the nation's top court.
The June 25 decision was the first time a regional federal appeals court had made such a ruling in the year since the Supreme Court ordered the federal government to extend benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
The Supreme Court is in recess and will not consider petitions filed this summer until the fall. If the justices take up Utah's case, it would likely be heard in early 2015 with a decision by the end of next June.
Gay marriage briefly was legal in Utah after a federal judge ruled in December that a state ban on gay matrimony violated the Constitution. That decision was put on hold by the Supreme Court pending appeals but not before more than 1,300 same-sex couples married. Their status remains in limbo.
There are now 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal. In another nine states, including Utah, federal judges have struck down bans on same-sex marriage but the rulings have been put on hold pending appeal.
Several other same-sex marriage lawsuits are moving toward the Supreme Court's justices and two others, testing bans in Oklahoma and Virginia, already have been heard by appeals courts.
Rulings in those are expected any day, and the Supreme Court could wait to decide whether to take up the Utah case until other appeals come in.
The Mormon church, which wields big political and social influence in Utah, says it has always supported traditional marriage and a culture of respect, and it hopes the nation's highest court will uphold that view.
Reyes' announcement came after gay marriage supporters delivered a petition signed by nearly 4,000 Utahns to Governor Gary Herbert's Salt Lake City mansion demanding that the state drop any appeals.
Billie Christiansen attended with her 11-year-old daughter and said that if she could, she would ask Herbert not use state tax dollars to hurt innocent people.
"These families have just as much love, just as much hope as every other family," said Christensen, who also has a gay son.
In a separate case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Wednesday denied a request from a Pennsylvania county clerk who was seeking a stay of a district court decision that allowed gay marriage to go into effect in the state. In that case, the state declined to appeal the lower court's decision.
(Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Sandra Maler and Will Dunham)