Federal judge orders recognition of same-sex marriages performed in Utah

Published: Monday, May 19 2014 4:10 p.m. MDT

A federal judge ruled Monday that Utah must recognize same-sex marriages performed in the state during the brief time it was legal in late December and early January.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge ruled Monday that Utah must recognize the same-sex marriages performed in the state during the brief time it was legal in late December and early January.

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball also put his order on hold for 21 days to allow the state time to seek an emergency stay from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Kimball wrote it's clear under Utah law that legal marriages can't be retroactively invalidated and that the state failed to show it would be harmed if the unions were recognized. Conversely, he said, not recognizing same-sex married couples disrupts their lives on a daily basis.

"The state has placed plaintiffs and their families in a state of legal limbo with respect to adoptions, child care and custody, medical decisions, employment and health benefits, future tax implications, inheritance, and many other property and fundamental rights associated with marriage," Kimball wrote in his 34-page ruling.

"These legal uncertainties and lost rights cause harm each day that the marriage is not recognized."

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes issued a statement Monday saying his office has not decided whether to appeal Kimball's ruling.

"According to the court, this decision directly relates to the same-sex marriages that took place within the 17-day window and not the ultimate legal questions in Kitchen vs. Herbert. We are currently assessing the legal impact of today’s decision and will respond within the 21-day allotted time period."

Kitchen vs. Herbert is the case that led to U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby overturning Utah's ban on same-sex marriage. It now rests with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a decision is expected in the coming weeks.

The preliminary injunction issued Monday is not a permanent order, but it reflects the court’s determination that the plaintiffs are likely to win on their legal claims and would suffer irreparable harm if their marriages were stripped of recognition.

John Mejia, an American Civil Liberties Union of Utah attorney who represents the couples, said the ruling means those marriages now cannot be taken away from them.

“While we await a permanent decision, we are relieved that our clients will receive the full recognition they deserve as lawfully married couples," he said.

Bill Duncan, Sutherland Institute director of the Center for Family and Society, called Kimball's ruling disappointing because it rewards Shelby's "overreaching" decision that struck down Utah's voter-approved Amendment 3 defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

"It's gamesmanship by a federal judge," Duncan said of Shelby's ruling.

"There's nothing in the United States Constitution that allows courts to mandate same-sex marriage on the states, but one judge was able to do just that by issuing a novel ruling and then forcing the state to put it into effect before the court of appeals could correct any legal errors in that decision."

After Shelby overturned Utah's same-sex marriage ban on Dec. 20, the state appealed to the 10th Circuit Court and obtained a stay of the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. About 1,300 couples married before the high court stepped in Jan. 6.

Reyes took the position that the Supreme Court stay means the law reverts back to the way it was before Shelby's ruling. Based on Reyes' advice, the governor's office directed state agencies on Jan. 8 to put recognition of same-sex marriages on hold pending the appeal.

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