By David Bailey
(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court panel extended a temporary hold on Tuesday on a federal judge's ruling that struck down a Michigan ban on gay nuptials, blocking the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples pending an appeal.
A federal judge in Detroit struck down Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage on Friday, and county clerks issued more than 300 marriage licenses to gay couples on Saturday before the appeals court stopped the judge's decision from taking effect.
The appeals court cited the U.S. Supreme Court's granting of a stay after a federal judge last year overturned Utah's ban on gay weddings. Clerks immediately began issuing marriage licenses while Utah's attorney general appealed the ruling.
The appeals court also noted that several district courts that have struck down same-sex marriage bans similar to Michigan's have granted stays for the appeals.
U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman ruled that the Michigan ban on same-sex marriage approved by voters in 2004 as a state constitutional amendment breached the equal protection rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
The ruling was the latest of a series of decisions supporting the right of gays to marry since the U.S. Supreme Court in June found that legally married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits.
April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, a lesbian couple from the Detroit suburb of Hazel Park, had challenged Michigan's ban. They want to jointly adopt each other's children but are prevented by the law.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Governor Rick Snyder filed an immediate notice that they planned to appeal Friedman's decision and asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to put the ruling on hold pending a review.
Attorneys for DeBoer and Rowse had asked the appeals court to deny a stay, arguing in part that the state defendants "have not established and cannot establish a likelihood of success on the merits of their appeal."
With the temporary stay granted, same-sex couples married in Michigan on Saturday could find themselves in legal limbo.
A county clerk in Michigan who issued licenses to same-sex couples and performed marriages on Saturday asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to certify that gay couples married before the stay was entered are eligible for federal benefits.
The Obama administration said in January it would recognize same-sex marriages performed in Utah and allow federal benefits to couples married there, though the state would not do so.
Some 1,300 gay couples were married in Utah in the few weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay while the appeal is considered, leaving the newlyweds uncertain about whether they have the rights generally afforded by marriage.
Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia now allow same-sex nuptials, a number that could increase substantially if recent federal court decisions overturning bans in Michigan, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia are upheld.
Supporters of the ban in Michigan, Utah and elsewhere have cited tradition, religious texts and the welfare of children to defend their belief that only opposite-sex marriage should be legal. Several courts have ruled that those arguments are insufficient.
(Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Jon Herskovitz and Bernard Orr)