By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - The Arkansas Supreme Court on Friday halted the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the first and only state in the U.S. South to allow gay marriage.
About 500 gay and lesbian couples have married since a state judge last week overturned the Arkansas ban on same-sex unions. The state attorney general's office had requested the stay to stop counties from issuing licenses and also appealed the decision that struck down the state's gay marriage ban.
The Supreme Court issued the stay in a brief, unsigned order, without elaborating on its reasoning.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza of Little Rock, the state's capital, ruled on May 9 that Arkansas' constitutional and statutory prohibitions against same-sex marriage violated U.S. and state guarantees of equal protection.
Same-sex advocates praised Piazza's decision, saying allowing gay marriages in Arkansas marked a dramatic change in the South, where every state has a law on its books banning the unions.
Six of Arkansas 75 county clerks were named as defendants in the case challenging the gay marriage ban. Among them was Pulaski, the most populous, which encompasses Little Rock and issued the majority of the same-sex marriage licenses.
Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. That number would increase sharply if federal court rulings striking down bans in several states are upheld on appeal.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Gunna Dickson)
[Image: Same-sex couples await their number to be called to receive their marriage license at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Arkansas on May 12, 2014. By Jacob Slaton for Reuters.]