A federal judge on Friday struck down Utah's same-sex marriage ban, making the state where the powerful Mormon Church has fought gay marriage the latest front in the legal battle over marriage rights.
In a 53-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby held that Utah's law 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."
Utah will appeal the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Ryan Bruckman, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, said in a telephone call to the Los Angeles Times. He said the state will also seek an emergency stay to prevent any gay marriages from taking place.
Even as he spoke, at least one county clerk in Salt Lake County has begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The state's attorney general's office did not have an immediate comment on whether it will seek an appeal in the case.
The Utah ruling comes a day after New Mexico's Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, by 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, in effect, recognizing same-sex marriages for the purpose of receiving federal benefits. The legislation has led to a flurry of lawsuits to force states to legalize same-sex marriages. Other states, including Hawaii and Illinois, recently legalized gay marriages through legislative action.
In September 2013, a New Jersey judge cited the DOMA ruling in a state case, holding that the state constitution requires the recognition of same-sex marriages.
That ruling effectively brought same-sex marriage to New Jersey after Gov. Chris Christie decided not to appeal. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, challenges in many 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 opposition.
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 also said he expects the state to appeal the decision to the 10th Circuit, but given the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, that could cause a problem for the appeals court.