Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage is struck down

Utah, one of the most conservative states on the issue of gay rights, found itself the latest front in the battle over same-sex marriage when a federal judge Friday struck down its ban on such unions. Officials said they would seek an emergency stay while they appealed the ruling.

Amid the flurry of legal activity, the Salt Lake County clerk’s office started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker began officiating at the state’s first gay weddings within hours of the ruling, his spokesman said.

Becker “is conducting as many marriages as he can in this window of time,” said Art Raymond. “There is a variety of responses going on in Utah, but the mayor, who is very progressive, is all about equal access and equal rights.”

Deputy County Clerk Dahnelle Burton-Lee told the Associated Press that the district attorney had authorized her office to begin issuing the licenses, but she didn’t know how many had been given out. It was unknown if any marriages would take place before the appeals court acted on the state’s request for a stay.

“We are asking for a stay and will appeal the ruling,” said Ryan Bruckman, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office. He said the state’s lawyers were drafting the papers and would file them as quickly as possible.


The federal ruling came earlier than many in Utah had expected. U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby had set a deadline of Jan. 7 to issue his opinion, but handed down his decision Friday, 16 days after he heard arguments from lawyers representing three same-sex couples.

In his 53-page ruling, Shelby held that Utah’s ban passed by voters in 2004 violates the federal right of gay and lesbian couples to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment to 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 argued that Utah’s law promotes 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.

“In the absence of such evidence, the state’s unsupported fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the state’s refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens,” Shelby wrote.

The Utah ruling comes a day after New Mexico’s Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, ruling that it is unconstitutional to deny a marriage license to gay and lesbian couples. New Mexico became the 17th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow same-sex marriages.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, in effect allowing married same-sex couples to receive federal benefits. The legislation 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.

Utah officials argued 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.

In September, a New Jersey judge cited the DOMA ruling in a state case, holding that the state constitution required the recognition of same-sex marriage. That ruling effectively brought same-sex marriage to New Jersey after Gov. Chris Christie decided not to appeal.

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, challenges in other states are still pending. But Utah, the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, holds a special place because of the state’s history opposing gay marriage and the Mormon Church’s strong objections.

Clifford Rosky, chairman of the board of the advocacy group Equality Utah, and a professor of law at the University of Utah, praised the decision, which he called careful and well-reasoned. “This is one of the decisions that recognizes that every individual has the right to marry the person he or she loves.”

Rosky spoke before the official announcement that the state would appeal, but he accurately predicted that the state would take its case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the ruling by the Supreme Court could cause problems for the appeals court, he said.

The Utah suit had been brought by three couples, one of whom were legally married in Iowa and want the license recognized in Utah. The other couples were seeking licenses to marry from Utah.

Attorneys Peggy A. Tomsic and James E. Magleby, who represented the plaintiffs, said in a statement that the ruling brought “marriage equality to Utah, not only for the plaintiffs, but all other same-sex couples residing in Utah who desire to marry or have their legal marriage from another state recognized in Utah.”

“We cannot capture in words the gratitude and joy plaintiffs feel that Judge Shelby had the courage to declare, as the United States Constitution requires, that same-sex couples, like all other U.S. citizens and Utah residents, are constitutionally entitled to marriage equality in Utah,” they said.