By Jennifer Dobner 

SALT LAKE CITY, March 12 (Reuters) - Lawyers for four same-sex couples who wed in Utah while a ban on gay marriage was briefly lifted urged a U.S. judge on Wednesday to force the conservative, heavily Mormon state to recognize their nuptials while the legal battle over marriage plays out in an appeals court.

Utah became the 18th U.S. state to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples when a federal district judge, Robert Shelby, ruled in December that a state ban on gay matrimony was unconstitutional. The decision was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before more than 1,300 gay couples had tied the knot.

The Utah governor's office has said the state cannot recognize those weddings - or grant those couples any marriage rights - until an appeal of the case is decided by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

That prompted a separate lawsuit from four couples who say waiting for marriage recognition denies them their constitutional rights, leaves their lives in limbo and humiliates their families.

"The fact is, these people are legally married," said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Joshua Block, whose organization is representing the four couples. "The plaintiffs need to know their legal status."

The ACLU has asked U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball for a preliminary injunction ordering Utah to immediately honor marriages performed after Shelby's Dec. 20 ruling, and to grant all same-sex married couples the same rights afforded heterosexual couples and their families.

Utah officials contend they cannot legally do so because such recognition remains barred by the 2004 voter-approved initiative defining marriage in the state constitution as a union exclusively between a man and a woman.

On Wednesday state attorneys said they were not seeking to void marriages performed in the 17 days between Shelby's lifting of the ban and the Jan. 6 stay of his decision, but to defend Utah's refusal to recognize them for the time being, and they asked Kimball to dismiss the lawsuit.

"It's reasonable for the state to take that position," Assistant Utah Attorney General Joni Jones said during a hearing before Kimball in Salt Lake City's federal courthouse.

The ACLU's Block said the eight plaintiffs in the case have all been harmed by Utah's refusal to recognize their marriages because their ability to make decisions about a host of issues - from healthcare directives and major financial decisions to second-parent adoptions of their children - had been disrupted.

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