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Gay-marriage momentum building, activists say

Published: Friday, April 24 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Already coalesced around the passage of Proposition 8 and an unprecedented push for gay rights in the state, local activists say the momentum from recent same-sex marriage victories in Iowa and Vermont is carrying over to Utah.

"I see a lot of momentum building up," said Jacob Whipple of the All For One Initiative. "I see a lot of promise."

Legal experts, however, say the out-of-state decisions are likely to have little impact in Utah.

After watching the Utah Legislature shoot down each gay-rights bill in the Common Ground Initiative earlier this year, activists do not expect change over night. Still, they say the pendulum is swinging in their direction.

"It feels like it's very much a historic time," said Michael Westley, media and special events coordinator for the Utah Pride Center. "I've been out in Salt Lake City for 15 years, and I've never seen the rallies and marches and the energy that I have since the passage of Proposition 8."

Momentum, however, might be all the shifts in Vermont and Iowa offer Utahns. Legal experts say the decisions will have almost no impact on the state's laws.

The decisions in Vermont and Iowa "increases the likelihood for conflict between states with strongly contradictory marriage policies," said Brigham Young University family law professor Lynn Wardle.

Cliff Rosky, a professor at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law, disagrees.

If Utah were going to take a legal hit from gay-marriage advocates, it would have come when Massachusetts approved same-sex marriages half a decade ago, Rosky said.

"Whatever issues there are now were there before (Iowa and Vermont)," he said.

Even for Wardle, the cultural shift in the United States is the "most problematic" element.

"What we see now is a changing of the national culture," he said. "And that's going to put a lot of pressure on other states to go along with the crowd."

Wardle pointed to 1970, when California began allowing no-fault divorces. Within seven years, nearly every other state had passed a similar law, he said.

"It's like a flood," Wardle said. "You can close the door, but the water is still going to get in under the door and through the windows."

Michael Mueller of Utahns for Marriage Equality doesn't expect those waters to hit Utah any time soon.

"It will be awhile," Mueller said. "But it does offer a glimmer of hope."

With one of the strongest marriage amendments in the country, Utah is not likely to recognize same-sex marriages without a mandate from the federal government, said Bill Duncan of the Marriage Law Foundation.

That's something people on both sides of the issue seem to agree about.

"In Utah, it's not going to happen," Whipple said. "We're never going to overturn Amendment 3. It will have to be a top-down thing instead of a bottom-up thing."

Whipple sees progress in the Matthew Shepard Act, hate crime legislation currently being considered by Congress, and the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Whipple said he hopes to eventually see the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has come out in support for civil unions. Huntsman said Thursday the courts might have to decide whether Amendment 3 to the Utah Constitution allows for civil unions.

"I don't know that that bans it specifically. I think that ultimately could be a court case," the governor said during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7.

E-mail: afalk@desnews.com

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