By Peter Henderson
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled on Monday that same-sex couples could not marry in California while the court considers the constitutionality of the state's ban on gay marriage.
But the panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set an aggressive schedule for the case, with briefings in the fall and a hearing the week of December 6.
California's ban on same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 8, passed in November 2008, setting off emotional reactions among both opponents and supporters of the ban.
Liberals questioned how trend-setting California could fall in line with roughly 40 other states that ban same-sex unions, while social conservatives boasted that their cause had national backing.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Vaughn Walker ruled earlier this month that the ban was unconstitutional.
Last week he said gay marriages could resume while higher courts considered the matter. But the brief ruling by the three-judge appellate panel reverses that, prohibiting gay marriage during the appeal.
The appeals court has no deadline for a ruling, and the panel gave no reason for its decision on Monday.
"They punt," said University of California, Berkeley, family law professor Joan Hollinger, who said the ruling was practical since it left in place the status quo but sped up the appeal.
The court did however ask both sides to explain whether the nongovernmental group that has defended Prop 8 had the judicial right, or standing, to appeal the case.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown represent the state in the case, and both support gay marriage. They have declined to appeal the lower court ruling.
Chief Judge Walker cast doubt on whether the Prop 8 group could show harm to themselves and meet other requirements of standing, and the request by the appellate judges highlighted the matter.
"It is obvious that they think there is a genuine issue" of whether Prop 8 backers have the legal right to appeal," said Jesse Choper, a Constitutional law professor at Berkeley.
The legal team fighting for gay marriage said they would not challenge the stay and welcomed the "extremely expedited" schedule.
Andrew Pugno, a lawyer defending the ban, said in a statement he was glad to see Californians' votes "will remain valid" during the appeal process.
(Additional reporting by Dan Levine, Editing by Chris Wilson)