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Utah gay marriage ruling brings mixed emotions

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Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge of Salt Lake City didn't know they were going to get married on Friday. 

They didn’t even have the time to tell anyone. Wood was so frazzled she almost forgot to grab her driver’s license before heading to the Salt Lake County clerk’s office.

The couple, plaintiffs in a Utah court case seeking to end the state's ban on same-sex marriage, were in shock when they heard the news Friday that U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby had struck down that very law, which was put in place by Utah voters in 2004.

It didn’t take long for Wood, 58, and Partridge, 47, to join the many others lining up to get marriage licenses.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker also headed to the clerk’s office and helped marry about 35 couples in what he described as a "powerful, emotional day."

"There were couples arriving to try and get their papers in order from the clerk, but there were also just exponentially more people who were there as friends, family, supporters,” he told the Los Angeles Times on Saturday.

Utah has long been one of the most conservative states on the issue of gay rights, and not everyone was happy with the judge’s decision. 

The Utah attorney general’s office late Friday night filed motions to stay the ruling and motions to appeal, spokesman Ryan Bruckman told The Times.

Bruckman said the office was not happy with the verdict mainly because of its effect on Utah’s constitution.

"The duty of our office is to protect the constitution that voters of Utah have put in place," he said.

At least one county refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples until the issue could be clarified, said Bryan Thompson, Utah County clerk/auditor, in a statement.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, in effect allowing married same-sex couples to receive federal benefits. That has led to a series of lawsuits to force states to legalize same-sex marriages. Other states, including Hawaii and Illinois, recently legalized gay marriage through legislative action.

Friday's ruling came earlier than many had expected. Judge Shelby had set a deadline of Jan. 7 to issue his opinion after hearing arguments from lawyers representing three same-sex couples.

In his 53-page ruling, Shelby held that Utah's ban violates the federal right of gay and lesbian couples to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

"The state's current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason," Shelby wrote. "Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional."

Attorneys for the state had argued that Utah's law promoted the state's interest in "responsible procreation" and the "optimal mode of child-rearing." But Shelby said the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way.

Bruckman said the attorney general’s office had received mixed reactions from Utah residents on the ruling.

"There have been a number of people who have contacted the office and voiced their desire to make sure we appeal, and then those who call and say they want it to stand," he said.

Among those who oppose the judge’s decision is the Sutherland Institute of Utah, a public policy research organization that "supports limited government, private property rights and personal responsibility," according to its website. 

On Friday, the organization posted a petition asking people to show their support for traditional marriage. "We need to show that Utahns still understand and support the critical importance of traditional marriage to the health and success of our society,” the petition reads.

The institute also called on Republican Gov. Gary R. Herbert to “order county clerks to stand down in issuing 'marriage' licenses until the appellate process has concluded."

Utah officials argue that it's not the courts' role to determine how a state defines marriage and that the Supreme Court's ruling doesn't give same-sex couples the universal right to marry.

Herbert, who issued a statement Friday, said he was working with "legal counsel and the acting attorney general to determine the best course to defend traditional marriage within the borders of Utah.” 

In the meantime, same-sex couples and civil rights advocates continue to celebrate.

“It was honestly such a joyous day,” Partridge told The Times. “We walked in and people were immediately cheering, saying congratulations and good luck.”

“As we got older we were thinking more about getting married because the security,” Wood added. “But I actually never thought in my lifetime it would be a reality.”

Partridge, a high school teacher, said she received support from everyone in the community, including her students.

One student, she said, had posted on Facebook: "I’m so inspired by my 11th grade English teacher thanks for standing up for what’s fair and true and being a wonderful example to all.… I’m so happy you can finally say 'I do' to the woman you love."

Peggy A. Tomsic, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, told The Times that watching same-sex couples exchange vows was an experience she was “incapable of capturing in words.”

“I was really happy that equality came to Utah but sad it had taken so long,” she said.

“I think Judge Shelby recognized these people had been deprived of their rights for so long [and] that needed to stop,” she said. “I genuinely hope that his well-reasoned opinion helps plaintiffs in other states get the same type of ruling.”

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Federal judge backs same-sex marriages in Utah; state to appeal

 

Twitter: @saba_h

saba.hamedy@latimes.com

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