(CNN) -- A federal appeals court in San Francisco, California, decided Tuesday to indefinitely delay consideration of a controversial case regarding the constitutionality of that state's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
The decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals asks the Supreme Court of California to consider the issue of "standing" -- whether state or county officials have the authority to defend Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative defining marriage as only between one man and one woman.
Top state officials -- including former attorney general and current Gov. Jerry Brown -- have refused to defend the initiative in court, setting up a unresolved fight over the so-called "gateway" legal issue.
If California's high court fails to provide any guidance to the 9th Circuit, the federal court could decide on its own either to grant standing or refuse to issue a final ruling on the case. Top state officials -- including the governor -- also could have the discretion to allow other individuals to defend Proposition 8 in court.
A refusal to issue a ruling could leave the statute intact and derail a final decision on the larger question of the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. A three-judge federal appeals panel heard oral arguments last month.
Brian Brown, head of the conservative National Organization for Marriage, characterized the decision as a rebuke of U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker's August ruling, which found the law unconstitutional.
"A federal trial court judge cannot possibly have the last word about whether the U.S. Constitution requires gay marriage," Brown said. "We are confident Judge Walker's ruling will not be permitted to stand without challenge."
Same-sex marriage is currently legal in five states and in the District of Columbia, while civil unions are permitted in New Jersey. The five states are Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, and New Hampshire.
The case is Perry v. Schwarzenegger (10-16696).
CNN's Bill Mears and Alan Silverleib contributed to this report