Gay couples wed after federal judge overturns Utah's same-sex marriage ban

Published: Friday, Dec. 20 2013 2:25 p.m. MST

In this 2004 file photo, people attend a Provo rally in support of Amendment 3. U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby struck down Utah's Amendment 3 — which defines traditional marriage as the union of a man and a woman— Friday, finding that it violates rights to due process and equal protection as set forth in the 14th Amendment.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge Friday struck down Utah's voter-approved constitutional amendment — which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman — finding that it violates rights to due process and equal protection as set forth in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Within hours, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill confirmed that, in light of the ruling, he saw no reason to prohibit Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and as many as 120 gay couples descended on the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office to obtain licenses, with many staying to marry on the spot.

The Utah Attorney General's Office issued a statement late Friday night, saying it discussed with U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby "a stay of his decision prohibiting Utah's definition of marriage as between a man and a woman."

"Judge Shelby declined to stay his decision on the court's own accord and would not entertain an oral motion to stay. As a result, the attorney general's office is filing a written motion to stay, which the judge has said he will resolve on an expedited basis," the statement read.

Also Friday, the attorney general's office filed a notice of appeal in U.S. District Court.

"The federal district court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right has never been established in any previous case in the 10th Circuit," office spokesman Ryan Bruckman said in a statement. "The attorney general’s office will continue reviewing the ruling in detail until an appeal is filed to support the constitutional amendment passed by the citizens of Utah."

Meanwhile, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert expressed disappointment in Shelby's ruling.

“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,” Herbert said in a statement.

Utah is one of 33 states to have banned same-sex marriage either through its constitution or by statute. In 2004, 66 percent of Utahns approved Amendment 3 and its traditional definition of marriage.

Shelby acknowledged in his ruling that "few questions are as politically charged in the current climate," but he said the plaintiffs in the case were asking a question that depended on the U.S. 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," the judge wrote. "Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional."

Bill Duncan, director of the Center for Family and Society at the Sutherland Institute, said he wasn't necessarily surprised by the ruling, based on questions he said Shelby asked at an oral argument hearing on the issue. Still, that doesn't make the ruling "any less disappointing," he said.

"Because the baseline holding is that two-thirds of voters who approved the amendment in 2004 were acting irrationally, and that's hard to swallow," Duncan said. "There's nothing in the U.S. Constitution requiring states to change the legal definition of marriage. The judge elevated his own thinking on a divisive social issue and turned it into a constitutional issue."

He, too, said he was confused as to how an amendment requiring states to treat slaves as full citizens could be interpreted as it was by Shelby.

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