SALT LAKE CITY — Gay rights activists in Utah hailed the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on marriage, while supporters of traditional marriage called the outcome disappointing.
But how the high court's decisions Wednesday on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8 will affect Utah remains to be seen, particularly when it comes to extending federal benefits for same-sex couples who marry in other states but live in Utah.
Attorney General John Swallow said he would "vigorously" defend Utah's voter-approved law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, though he doesn't believe Wednesday's decision will have much direct impact on the state.
“In a nutshell, DOMA will not affect us,” he said, adding Utah still has the right to define marriage as it sees fit.
Former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said the attorney general is accurate in saying the Supreme Court is not forcing Utah to authorize gay marriage, "but he should not be comfortable."
Utah Pride executive director Valerie Larabee said the decision would begin to "wash away" laws that she says discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
"We look forward to the day when all the anti-gay legislation lies on the trash heap of history like Prop 8 and DOMA," she said.
The justices struck down the section of DOMA that defines marriage as between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law as unconstitutional. That means legally married same-sex couples are entitled to claim the same federal benefits that are available to opposite-sex married couples.
The court also ruled that the traditional marriage activists who put Proposition 8 on California ballots in 2008 did not have the constitutional authority, or standing, to defend the law in federal courts after the state refused to appeal its loss at trial. The decision leaves in place a lower federal court decision that overturned Proposition 8 and effectively legalizes gay marriage in California.
Michael Picardi, 62, and Grady James, 64, announced after a news conference at the Utah Pride Center that they intend to get married.
"We are going to California to do it so we can have all the federal rights that we deserve to have as a married couple," James said.
James and Picardi, who have been together seven years, said they're bugged that they have to file federal income tax returns as single people when they have a house, a car and checking and business accounts together.
"This is a dramatic day. This is Brown v. the Board of Education," said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, the Utah Legislature's only openly gay member, making the comparison to landmark school desegregation legislation.
But Dabakis said it will be "awkward" for gay couples who marry in other states because they may or may not receive federal benefits in Utah.
"This patchwork system is going to be a mess the next few years until it gets straightened out. And really, there's only one way to straighten it out, which is to not have a patchwork, to allow marriage for LGBT families all across the country," he said.
Utah lawmakers have stood firm for traditional marriage, and Utah Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka expects that won't change.
"In Utah we have traditional marriage, and it's going to stay that way," she said.
Ruzicka said the Supreme Court rulings basically make marriage a states' rights issue.
"If your state passes a same-sex marriage law, then federal benefits will be affected in those states. But in this state and other states that don't have it, who are they going to give the federal benefits to? They're not married," she said.
Swallow said the DOMA decision allows people in states that allow same-sex marriage to apply for federal benefits, but the ruling did not address that issue for states that do not.
"We're really left to our own argument and our own legal analysis on that issue," he said. "Neither the DOMA case or the Proposition 8 case answered that question It certainly leaves the status quo in place."
Tolman, who represented Utah Pride in friend-of-the-court briefs filed in both cases, said the DOMA decision raises questions about residency. He said it would come down to the rules made by the federal agencies that administer those benefits.
It will be "real tough" for states like Utah to tell couples lawfully married in another state that they can't have federal benefits that the Supreme Court just indicated need to be extended, Tolman said.
"Certainly, Utah may make the decision that it's not going to extend marriage equality and it's not going to extend state benefits, but even that will come under intense pressure," he said.
Tolman sees the court rulings as the beginning of "nationwide acceptance of marriage equality," though he expects Utah to be one of the last holdouts.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, blasted court's decision.
“It’s pretty hard to believe that the Supreme Court would say that the 85 senators, 342 members of the House of Representatives, and Democrat President Bill Clinton — all who supported DOMA when it was signed into law nearly 20 years ago — voted for DOMA literally seeking to injure and impose stigma on gay individuals," he said. "That may be the perception of five justices, but it is simply not true."
Hatch called the ruling a disappointment because instead of allowing Americans and their elected representatives to continue the same-sex marriage debate, the court "used its own personal opinion to tip the balance."
The senator told a Logan radio station in April that he believes a civil union law giving gay people the same rights as married people would solve the issue without undermining marital law.
In 2004, Utah voters approved Amendment 3 to the state Constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The law also states that no other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as a marriage or given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect.
Three gay and lesbian couples filed a federal lawsuit in March seeking the right to marry or have their marriage in another state recognized in Utah. The suit asks a judge to declare the Utah law unconstitutional under the due process and equal protections clauses of the 14th Amendment. It seeks a permanent injunction preventing the state from enforcing its ban on same-sex marriage.
James E. Magelby, an attorney for the couples, said the Utah law is "particularly offensive" because it goes further than DOMA and Proposition 8.
Swallow said the attorney general's office would file a response to the lawsuit in August.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he has long believed that marriage is a states' rights issue.
"I support and will continue to defend Utah's constitutional definition of marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman," he said. "I also believe that discrimination has no place in society. I hope we can find a path that protects all from discrimination while defending the sanctity of traditional marriage.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the Supreme Court decision on DOMA disappointed him.
"I believe that act was a reasonable, constitutional exercise of the federal government’s power to determine the proper application of federal benefits," he said "If the American people have changed their mind about that policy, then Congress, not the court, should adjust it."
Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson said the decision affirms protections in civil law as well as the jurisdiction of the states, like Utah, to determine what they see fit.
Larabee said she's thrilled with the decision because it affirms protection for LGBT people.
"Justice (Anthony) Kennedy wrote passionately about the commitment, dedication and protections gay and lesbian couples and their children are entitled to under the law. We knew we were protected by the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom and equality, and made those arguments to the court. We’re so grateful the court came to the same conclusion," she said.
Sutherland Institute president Paul Mero said he's disappointed with the decisions from a broader legal and political context, but Utah's law is unharmed.
"Of course, Utah politics is different than law and policy and it’s natural for homosexual activists in Utah to be excited about the prospects of changing our laws and policies. But, that’s politics," he said.
"For now, nothing changes for Utah in support of faith, family and freedom — each is preserved, though each will continue to come under legal, political and cultural attack from homosexual activists."
Ruzicka said children need both a mother and a father.
"That is the basis of our society. It always has been. That is the moral law of our land and that should continue to be that way," she said.
Contributing: Peter Samore, Andrew Adams
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