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Topics In the News
Federal Judge Rules Utah Marriage Ban Unconstitutional
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 12/20/13
Last updated on: 12/24/13
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In a decision handed down on December 20, 2013, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby has ruled Utah's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Relying heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings in Windsor v. U.S.A. and Lawrence v. Texas, Shelby wrote that the ban denies gay and lesbian couples their rights to due process and equal protection. "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," he asserted. Moreover, since Judge Shelby did not stay his ruling, couples were able to apply for marriage licenses immediately after the ruling was issued and some have already wed in advance of an expected appeal by Utah's Attorney General.

Judge Shelby's carefully reasoned decision caught court watchers off guard. It came only 16 days after he heard arguments in the case; a decision was not expected until January at the earliest. The decision may be found here.

Among the important points established in the ruling is that marriage is a fundamental right to which homosexual as well as heterosexual couples are entitled. Although Judge Shelby considered the question of whether laws effecting gay people should be given heightened scrutiny, he ruled that the Utah marriage laws fail to pass constitutional muster even on the most deferential level of review.

Soon after news of the ruling was released, couples began applying for marriage licenses at the Salt Lake County Building in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill initially attempted to block the issuance of marriage licenses, but at 3:00 p.m. he advised Clerk of Court Sherrie Swensen to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples immediately.

Gill said he told the county clerks that applications from same-sex couples "should be processed in the same manner as all other applications. The order enjoins the state from enforcing [Amendment 3]. Unless there is a change, the current state of the law is that we cannot prohibit it."

By 3:30 p.m., at least one couple--Michael Ferguson and Seth Anderson--had been married.

Attorneys Peggy A. Tomsic and James E. Magleby, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, called the decision historic, saying in a statement that it brings "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."

Human Rights Campaign (HRC) President Chad Griffin issued the following statement in response to the ruling: "Like many judges before him, Judge Shelby recognized the fundamental equality of gay and lesbian couples guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Today, same-sex couples in Utah have renewed hope that they will soon be free to marry, and there is no legal or moral reason for the state to stand in their way."

A spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said, "This ruling by a district court will work its way through the judicial process. We continue to believe that voters in Utah did the right thing by providing clear direction in the state constitution that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and we are hopeful that this view will be validated by a higher court."

Ryan Bruckman, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said its attorneys plan to appeal the decision and were currently drafting a motion to seek a stay of the ruling "as quickly as we can get it taken care of."

Utah Governor Gary Herbert issued the following statement: "I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah. I am working with my legal counsel and the acting Attorney General to determine the best course to defend traditional marriage within the borders of Utah."

Although at least four counties in Utah refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on December 20, in Salt Lake County couples stood in line for several hours to receive their licenses.

Among the couples married in the hours after the ruling were openly gay Utah State Senator Jim Dabakis who wed his longtime partner Stephen Justeson. The ceremony in the Salt Lake County Building Friday afternoon was officiated by Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker.

Dabakis, who is an art dealer as well as the Chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, made news on June 26, 2013 when he proposed to Justesen at a Utah Pride Center party celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court marriage rulings.

After the brief wedding ceremony Dabakis told reporters, "there should not be discrimination. That you have religious marriage and you have civil marriage. And all Utahn's should be free to marry the person they love."

In the video below, from the Salt Lake City Tribune, Seth Anderson and Michael Ferguson, the first gay couple to be married in Utah, are interviewed.

The video below captures the excitement and joy at the Salt Lake County Building on December 20, 2013.

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