By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Thursday put on hold a federal judge's ruling that overturned Idaho's ban on gay marriage so it could consider motions for a longer stay, blocking same-sex nuptials a day before they would otherwise have been allowed.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale had overturned Idaho's ban on same-sex matrimony on Tuesday, saying it relegated gay couples to second-class status in violation of constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
Judge Dale had ordered an end to enforcement of Idaho's gay marriage ban by Friday, and denied a request by the state's Republican governor for a stay. But a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that, putting the ruling on ice while it considers emergency motions for a longer stay.
Marriage rights have already been extended to gay men and lesbians in 17 states and the District of Columbia in a trend that has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits.
That tally is expected to rise sharply if federal court decisions, which declared bans in several states unconstitutional, are upheld on appeal.
Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter hailed the temporary stay as a sign that "Idaho will not have to endure the same kind of chaos and confusion" seen in Utah after its gay marriage ban was struck down in December. About 1,400 couples who were married before the ruling was stayed in January by the U.S. Supreme Court now live in legal limbo.
In arguing in favor of the ban, Otter contended that heterosexual marriage centered on the welfare of children rather than the "emotional interests of adults" and protected religious liberty.
Attorneys for the four lesbian couples from Boise who brought the lawsuit in November challenging Idaho's prohibition on same-sex matrimony had asked the appellate court to deny the stay, arguing it would inflict harm on their clients and other same-sex couples "by exposing them, and their children, to continuing stigma."
Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he was hopeful the court will ultimately find in his clients' favor so they can enjoy the benefits of marriage like other Idaho families.
"We are very encouraged the court is obviously giving this serious consideration," he said.
(Reporting By Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Ken Wills and Bernard Orr)