The ruling Wednesday comes just two days before gay couples would have been allowed to change their names on official identifications and documents and obtain the benefits of any other married couple in Kentucky.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II of Louisville said in a four-page order that it is "best that these momentous changes occur upon full review" rather than being implemented too soon or causing confusing changes.
"That does not serve anyone well," said Heyburn, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Heyburn said the delay would stay in place until the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati either rules on the merits of the case or orders the stay lifted.
Heyburn's order is similar to those granting same-sex marriage recognition rights but putting the implementation on hold in Texas, Utah, Virginia and other states.
"The Court has concerns about implementing an order which has dramatic effects, then having that order reversed, which is one possibility," Heyburn said. "Under such circumstances, rights once granted could be cast in doubt.
Attorneys Shannon Fauver and Laura Landenwich, who represent the multiple couples seeking to have their unions recognized, said they will ask the appeals court to lift the stay and let Heyburn's original ruling take effect.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear on Friday requested the delay while he appeals the case. Private attorneys representing Beshear filed the request about 24 hours after they were hired to take the case.
Beshear said in a statement that he appreciates Heyburn granting the stay saying it "will prevent both actual and legal chaos while the appeal is underway.
"We will continue work on the appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals so all Kentuckians will have finality and understanding of what the law is, both in our Commonwealth and in the United States," Beshear said.
Heyburn overturned parts of Kentucky's same-sex marriage ban on Feb. 12 and set an effective date for his ruling of March 21. Heyburn said Kentucky's ban on recognizing same-sex marriages violated the Constitution's equal-protection clause because it treated "gay and lesbian persons differently in a way that demeans them."
Without the ruling, the state would have had to start allowing same-sex couples to start collecting marriage benefits. The ruling did not deal with the issue of whether same-sex couples could get marriage licenses in Kentucky. That is the subject of a separate lawsuit expected to be resolved by the summer.
Beshear sought the stay saying that allowing recognition of same-sex marriages to go forward before an appeals court reviews the case could cause legal chaos should Heyburn's ruling be overturned.
Heyburn said the judicial process sometimes operates with "stunning quickness" and other times with "maddening slowness," but it is the entire process that allows the judicial system and the judges to earn high credibility and acceptance with the public.
"This is the way of our Constitution," Heyburn said. "It is that belief which ultimately informs the Court's decision to grant a stay."
Beshear hired a private law firm to handle the appeal, signing a contract with a maximum payment of $100,000. Attorney General Jack Conway opted not to appeal Heyburn's decision that overturned parts of a 2004 state constitutional amendment on gay marriage. Conway said that appealing the case would be "defending discrimination.
That's when Beshear stepped in, disagreeing with his fellow Democrat about the appeal.
Multiple judges have overturned voter-approved bans in Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia.
At least 17 states, mostly in the Northeast, and Washington, D.C., allow same-sex marriage. Others may soon follow depending on how federal appeals courts, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court, rule on state bans that have been overturned.
Six federal judges have issued pro-gay-marriage rulings since the Supreme Court's decision last June that struck down part of the federal anti-gay-marriage law.
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