WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Kentucky's governor will hire outside lawyers to appeal a federal judge's ruling on same-sex marriage, after the state attorney tearfully refused Tuesday to take part in further legal challenges.
The ruling requires officials to formally recognize legal marriages among gays and lesbians performed outside the state.
Defining marriage in Kentucky and elsewhere "will be and should be ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in order to bring finality and certainty to this matter," Gov. Steven Beshear said in a statement.
"The people of this country need to know what the rules will be going forward. Kentucky should be a part of this process," the Democrat added.
Beshear will now ask a federal appeals court in Cincinnati to stay enforcement of the ruling until it is fully decided.
District Judge John Heyburn blocked his own order from taking effect until at least March 20.
"Without a stay in place, the opportunity for legal chaos is real," said the governor.
Beshear's action came minutes after his top law enforcement officer issued an emotional defense of same-sex marriage.
"From a constitutional perspective, Judge Heyburn got it right, and in light of other recent federal decisions, these laws will not likely survive upon appeal. We cannot waste the resources of the Office of the Attorney General pursuing a case we are unlikely to win," said Jack Conway, also a Democrat.
"I came to the inescapable conclusion that, if I did so, I would be defending discrimination. That I will not do. As Attorney General of Kentucky, I must draw the line when it comes to discrimination," he said.
Conway began crying while saying he was "doing what I think is right," something he would be proud of, for him and his young children.
He becomes the latest state attorney general to back gay rights in the face of recent court rulings, joining counterparts in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Nevada, and Oregon-- as well as the Obama administration.
Groups supporting "traditional" marriage criticized Conway's decision.
"It is absurd that Kentucky's attorney general, Jack Conway, is not doing what he swore to do upon taking office-- defending the laws and constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the judgment of the Kentucky's citizens who voted overwhelmingly on this issue," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. "We hope that voters hold him to account for abandoning his sworn duty."
Heyburn last month concluded Kentucky's 16-year-old laws "violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and they are void and unenforceable."
Supporters applauded the decision.
"A growing bipartisan majority of Americans know it is wrong to deny anyone the freedom to marry the person they love," said Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry. "With a marriage case potentially making it to the Supreme Court as soon as 2015, we must continue to make the case across the country that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry."
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia recognize the rights of homosexual couples to wed.
The political and legal momentum has only grown since the Supreme Court in June struck down a key part of a congressional law that did not recognize same-sex unions for federal purposes, meaning legally married gay and lesbians could not enjoy certain government benefits, like tax breaks.
Since then, federal and state courts in Utah, Virginia, Kentucky Oklahoma, Texas, New Jersey, and New Mexico have ruled similar state ban violate the U.S. Constitution, or allowed such marriages to begin.
The case is Love v. Beshear.