SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns came together in two rallies Monday evening, joining their voices with others across the nation in support of gay marriage only hours before the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in two potentially landmark cases.
"Did they hear that in D.C.?" asked Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center. More than 200 supporters filling the Salt Lake City Main Library's outdoor amphitheater answered with cheers, whistles and candles raised to the sky as they petitioned for "marriage equality."
Similar rallies and candlelight vigils were staged across the country, from Massachusetts to California, and in smaller fashion in Provo where a small group of community members and some BYU students rallied in support of gay marriage.
On Tuesday the Supreme Court will hear arguments for and against Proposition 8, a California initiative passed by voters in 2008 affirming the traditional definition of marriage, a vote later ruled unconstitutional in U.S. District Court. That hearing will be followed up Wednesday by justices who will take on the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law defining marriage as the union of a man and woman.
Supporters of traditional marriage from several Utah communities and faiths will stage their own rally Tuesday night, joined by Gov. Gary Herbert, in the rotunda of the state capitol.
Russ Baker-Gorringe was among those who spoke at Monday's rally in Salt Lake City, joined by his son on one side and his husband on the other. Russ and Joe Baker-Gorringe said their vows in a ceremony at Holladay's United Church of Christ in 2006 before legally marrying in California in October 2008, weeks before voters passed Proposition 8.
"When we sit in worship on Sunday, our marriage is as dignified and as honored as the heterosexual couples sitting around us," he said. "But when we leave the sanctuary of the United Church of Christ, we become second-class citizens and we have no rights beyond that."
The two men said they hope other states, including Utah, will someday recognize their marriage.
Other speakers included Jackie Biskupsi, Utah's first openly gay legislator who called a marriage solution "within reach" as she asked the crowd to join hands. Jesse Nix, an attorney and member of Utah Pride Center's board, compared the fight to legalize gay marriage to the precedent-setting 1967 Supreme Court decision regarding interracial marriage that made his parents' union possible.
Casting the fight for gay marriage as a civil rights battle has helped push public opinion nationally in the direction of gay marriage, according to national polls. Those in support of traditional marriage reject gay marriage as a civil right, suggesting the need for equal rights — access to equal employment, housing, and hospital visitation rights, among others — is separate from the preservation of traditional marriage.
A 2011 Public Policy poll revealed 66 percent of Utahns think gay marriage should be illegal. However, when civil unions are included as an option, opposition drops to 39 percent, with 37 percent supporting civil unions and 23 percent supporting marriage.
In contrast, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found nationwide, 58 percent of Americans favor government-sanctioned marriage for gays and lesbians, while 36 percent are opposed.
Monday was a day for supporters of gay marriage to raise their voices. A group of students in Provo led their own vigil at the Provo City Justice Court, including prayer and singing of the National Anthem.
BYU senior Roseanna Hopper joined in the Provo rally. When she started college in 2008, Hopper said she felt confused as debate about Proposition 8 dominated the campus. Five years later, Hopper said she has made up her mind.
"I definitely think marriage equality is best," said Hopper, who explained she is a straight ally for LGBT students on campus.
The purpose of the Utah Pride Center's rally in Salt Lake City was two-fold, Larabee said. First, to let its supporters know they have been heard, and second, to lend Utah's voices to the national discussion.
"We don't want to be left out," she said. "I think that there was a lot of love here tonight, a lot of energy, and I want to say a lot of spirituality … I think that people brought their best selves tonight, and really, genuinely, want to send their energy to the East Coast."
Sher Langley and her teenage daughter Kyra Duys, parishioners of the United Church of Christ, said they attended Monday's rally in Salt Lake City as a family in order to support other families.
"We're celebrating other families, and affirming them," Langley said.
Duys, who moved to Utah from Minnesota two years ago, said she has seen the uncertainty LGBT youth face.
"I have many friends who are LGBT and just the thought that they don't have equal rights as I do saddens me," she said. "Coming to events like this, I feel like I can help make things better for my friends."
Contributing: Devon Dolan
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