WASHINGTON — In a move that may signal the inevitability of a nationwide right to same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court on Monday let stand appeals court rulings allowing such unions in five states.
The development, a major surprise, cleared the way for same-sex marriages in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. Officials in Virginia announced that marriages would start at 1 p.m. on Monday.
The decision to let the appeals court rulings stand, which came without explanation in a series of brief orders, will almost immediately increase the number of states allowing same-sex marriage from 19 to 24, along with the District of Columbia. The impact of the move will in short order be even broader.
Monday’s orders let stand decisions from three federal appeals courts with jurisdiction over six other states that ban same-sex marriage: Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming. Those appeals courts will almost certainly follow their own precedents to strike down those additional bans as well, meaning the number of states with same-sex marriage should soon climb to 30.
There may then be no turning back, said Walter E. Dellinger III, who was an acting United States solicitor general in the Clinton administration.
“The more liberal justices have been reluctant to press this issue to an up-or-down vote until more of the country experiences gay marriage,” he said. “Once a substantial part of the country has experienced gay marriage, then the court will be more willing to finish the job.”
There is precedent for such an approach. The court waited until 1967, for instance, to strike down bans on interracial marriage, when the number of states allowing such unions had grown to 34, though it was still opposed by a significant majority of Americans.
Popular opinion has moved much faster than the courts on same-sex marriage, however, with many Americans and large majorities of young people supporting it.