WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for an immediate expansion of same-sex marriage by unexpectedly and tersely turning away appeals from five states seeking to prohibit gay and lesbian unions. The court's order effectively makes gay marriage legal now in 30 states.

Without comment, the justices brought to an end delays in same-sex marriages in five states- Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. Chief Justice John Roberts did not say a word about same-sex marriage as he began the court's new term.

Demonstrators at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building Saturday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Demonstrators at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building Saturday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Couples in six other states - Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming - should be able to get married in short order. Those states would be bound by the same appellate rulings that were put on hold pending the Supreme Court's review

No other state cases were currently pending with the high court, but the justices stopped short of resolving for now the question of same-sex marriage nationwide. Still, those 11 states would bring to 30 the number of states where same-sex marriage is legal, plus the District of Columbia.

Challenges are pending in every state.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, called on the high court to "finish the job." Wolfson said the court's "delay in affirming the freedom to marry nationwide prolongs the patchwork of state-to-state discrimination and the harms and indignity that the denial of marriage still inflicts on too many couples in too many places."

Ed Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an opponent of same-sex marriage, also chastised the court for its "irresponsible denial of review in the cases." Whelan said it is hard to see how the court could eventually rule in favor of same-sex marriage bans after having allowed so many court decisions striking down those bans to remain in effect.

The situation was changing rapidly Monday in the affected states:

  • Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said marriage licenses could start to be issued to same-sex couples as early as Monday afternoon.
  • In North Carolina, lawyers for same-sex couples said they planned to ask a judge Monday to overturn the state's gay marriage ban.
  • In Oklahoma, the clerk in the largest county said he would await a formal order from the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before he begins issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. That court had placed its ruling striking down the state ban on hold.

Experts and advocates on both sides of the issue had expected the justices to step in and decide gay marriage cases this term.

The justices have an obligation to settle an issue of such national importance, not abdicate that responsibility to lower court judges, the advocates said. Opting out of hearing the cases leaves those lower court rulings in place.

Two other appeals courts, in Cincinnati and San Francisco, could issue decisions any time in same-sex marriage cases. Judges in the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit who are weighing pro-gay marriage rulings in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, appeared more likely to rule in favor of state bans than did the 9th Circuit judges in San Francisco, who are considering Idaho and Nevada restrictions on marriage.

James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union said he believes the court will quickly take up a case if an appeals court upholds state bans.

It takes just four of the nine justices to vote to hear a case, but it takes a majority of at least five for an eventual ruling. Monday's opaque order did not indicate how the justices voted on whether to hear the appeals.

With four justices each in the liberal and conservative camps and Justice Anthony Kennedy more or less in the middle, it appeared that neither side of the court wanted to take up the issue now. It also may be that Kennedy, with his likely decisive vote, did not want to rule on same-sex marriage now.

Here's more on what's happening Monday in the 11 states affected by the Supreme Court's denial:

COLORADO: Republican state Attorney General John Suthers said his office will file motions to expedite the lifting of federal and state court rulings that halted gay marriage and will advise county clerks when to issue licenses. In July, at least three county clerks had begun issuing same-sex marriage licenses after the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had struck down the Utah ban. They were ordered to stop issuing those licenses because the court put its ruling on hold pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

INDIANA: Gov. Mike Pence reaffirmed his commitment to traditional marriage on Monday but said he will follow the law regarding unions of same-sex couples. Pence said people are free to disagree over the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to reject an appeal of a ruling striking down Indiana's gay marriage ban. But he said people are not free to disobey the decision. County clerks have issued a few licenses to same-sex couples but say they've seen no mention of Monday weddings.

KANSAS: The American Civil Liberties Union says that since the appeals from Oklahoma and Utah originated in the 10th Circuit, the decision in those cases will affect states in that circuit, including Kansas. The ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri said it plans to file a lawsuit soon asking a federal judge to block the Kansas law prohibiting gay marriage.

NORTH CAROLINA: The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina says it will file a request seeking an immediate ruling from a U.S. district judge overturning the state's ban as unconstitutional. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has previously said that a federal appeals ruling overturning Virginia's ban is binding in his state and that he does not intend to file any further appeals or seek delays.

OKLAHOMA: The Tulsa County Court Clerk's Office has issued a marriage license to Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin, the couple who successfully challenged the state's ban on gay marriage. The clerk's office issued the license Monday afternoon. The two were plaintiffs in a challenge to Oklahoma's ban on gay marriage, which was overturned by a federal appeals court earlier this year. Bishop and Baldwin say they plan to have a wedding ceremony later Monday in Tulsa.

SOUTH CAROLINA: South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said he will continue to fight to uphold the state constitution's ban on gay marriage. He pointed out that a judge has not ruled on a lawsuit by a gay couple legally married in Washington, D.C., seeking to overturn the South Carolina gay marriage ban. A lawyer for the same-sex couple, Carrie Warner, said she will soon file paperwork asking a federal judge to immediately rule in their favor. The attorneys said they hope the state will realize that money spent fighting the ban could be used in other ways.

UTAH: A federal appeals court has lifted its stay in its gay marriage case that the Supreme Court declined to hear. After the appeals order was lifted Monday, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said the district attorney's office gave her approval to issue licenses to gay couples. Troy Williams, the executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Utah, said the organization is overjoyed for the families involved but had hoped the court would take Utah's case. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Gov. Gary Herbert, both Republicans, have also said the issue needs to be settled by the Supreme Court.

VIRGINIA: Gay couples have started marrying in Virginia. Thirty-year-old Lindsey Oliver and 42-year-old Nicole Pries received the first same-sex marriage license issued from the Richmond Circuit Court Clerk's office shortly after 1 p.m. Upon leaving the courthouse, they were married by gay-rights advocate The Rev. Robin Gorsline. The couple said Monday also was the anniversary of a commitment ceremony they held on a North Carolina beach three years ago.

WEST VIRGINIA: Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, said he is still figuring out how the state's case will be affected. "In light of the U.S. Supreme Court's surprising decision to not review this matter, we are analyzing the implications for the West Virginia case," spokeswoman Beth Gorczyca Ryan said in an email.

WISCONSIN: The Milwaukee County clerk's office has received at least one marriage license application from a same-sex couple after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Wisconsin's appeal in its gay marriage case. A deputy clerk in the Milwaukee County office said by Monday afternoon, one or two same-sex couples had applied for licenses. The clerk in Dane County clerk said two couples had applied for licenses there as of mid-afternoon Monday. But there won't likely be any same-sex weddings Monday. Wisconsin has a five-day waiting period to receive a marriage license after an application is made.

WYOMING: A state district judge has scheduled a Dec. 15 hearing on their request by three same-sex couples and Wyoming Equality to grant the right to marry. The Wyoming case is similar but not identical to those in federal court, and those fighting for gay marriage in Wyoming were hesitant to declare unconditional victory. But same-sex marriage could be legal in Wyoming by year's end.