(Adds reaction from Virginia attorney general and lawyers for plaintiffs)
WASHINGTON Aug 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court stopped gay marriage in Virginia from going ahead on Wednesday, staying an appeals court ruling that had struck down a state ban.
The court granted a stay application filed by opponents of gay marriage. The action was not a ruling on the merits of gay marriage, but means that a July 28 pro-gay marriage ruling by the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will not be implemented while litigation continues.
The high court issued its brief order less than 24 hours before gay and lesbian couples in Virginia could have begun applying for marriage licenses.
The Supreme Court issued a similar order in January blocking gay marriage from going ahead in Utah. So the court's order on the Virginia law was not wholly unexpected.
In light of a string of recent lower court rulings that have struck down state bans on gay marriage, the Supreme Court is expected to take up at least one case on the issue in its coming term, which starts in October and ends in June.
Three cases already are pending at the court that the justices can choose from, and whichever one they choose would likely be the most momentous civil rights case in years. The three cases involve fights over the bans in Virginia, Utah and Oklahoma.
Michele McQuigg, Prince William County clerk of court, had filed the Virginia stay application last week, seeking to prevent the appeals court ruling from going into effect.
"The Supreme Court acted wisely in restraining the lower court from implementing a ruling of this magnitude before the high court has a chance to decide the issue," Byron Babione, a lawyer for McQuigg, said in a statement.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat who backs gay marriage, had argued in favor of the stay.
He told reporters on Wednesday he recognized that gay and lesbian couples wanting to get married in the state would be disappointed with the delay caused by the stay. But he said the Supreme Court should "definitively answer the constitutional questions about marriage equality."
A landmark court ruling also would prevent the possibility of legal confusion if gay marriage went ahead, but the state ban was later upheld by the Supreme Court, Herring said.
David Boies, a lawyer for one of the groups of gay and lesbian couples that filed the original legal challenge to the Virginia ban, said in a statement that he is confident the Supreme Court will ultimately "end the flagrant injustice of segregating Americans based on sexual orientation."
Since a June 2013 ruling in the United States v. Windsor case struck down a federal law defining marriage as between one man and one woman, nearly 30 federal and state courts have ruled against bans on same-sex marriage at the state level. Only one court in the past 14 months has ruled in favor of a state ban.