Utah Republican leaders stand strongly behind traditional marriage but say it is too early to decide whether the state should jump into federal court opposing a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the national Defense of Marriage Act.
Meanwhile, a state Senate Democrat says he sees no reason for Utah to get involved — except for political reasons.
Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit against the federal law.
All Massachusetts citizens "are entitled to equal treatment under the laws regardless of whether they are gay or straight," she said.
Massachusetts was the first state to recognize gay marriage. And Coakley added that the 16,000 gay couples married in her state are being denied rights — first, because those marriages are not recognized by other states, and second, because gay couples in her state are being unlawfully denied federal spousal benefits.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he wouldn't get involved until after a trial court verdict. "We have often joined suits at the appellate level — in this case on the side of the federal government," said Shurtleff, who adds that he supports Utah's constitutional ban on gay marriages. "But that is down the road a bit."
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, said he sees no legal reason for Utah to join the lawsuit or spend any effort on it. "But gay marriage is classic Utah politics," said McCoy, an attorney and one of three openly gay Utah legislators. "Shurtleff is running for the U.S. Senate next year," and it may look good to conservative Republicans if he defends the DOMA.
"There are no gay married couples in Utah, because we don't recognize gay marriages" no matter where they may have taken place, McCoy said.
Among other issues, Massachusetts will make a states' rights argument: that each state should have the right to define marriage as it sees fit, and that a federal law saying who can and can't be married violates the U.S. Constitution's clause that says powers not specifically given to the federal government fall to the states.
That is the same argument that a number of states' rights advocates — including a new group started by some Utah legislators — are pushing.
Utah's Patrick Henry Caucus, spreading now into other state legislatures, says the federal government and Congress have usurped powers that the Founding Fathers intended for the states.
State Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, a founder of the caucus, said he's all for states having the right to decide marriage. "I try to tell people" who worry about traditional marriage failing "that I have no confidence in the federal government defending traditional marriage. And I'm afraid that some day the federal government will force all states to recognize gay marriage — so I'm for states having a say here. If Massachusetts wants to recognize gay marriage, OK, just don't force (Utah) to recognize it."
Congress passed the DOMA in 1996. Democratic President Barack Obama says the act should be repealed, although there is little taste for that in the Democratically controlled U.S. House and Senate.
Utah House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said "Utahns spoke clearly" several years ago when they amended the state Constitution to say marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that any other kind of civil union is prohibited.
If Massachusetts' lawsuit against the DOMA could possibly interfere with Utah's amendment, then Clark says it would be appropriate for the Beehive State to act.
"Will it elevate to a challenge by us" through a friend of the court brief in the federal courts supporting DOMA? "It is way too early to tell," said Clark.
"It would be a decision not only for (legislative) leadership, but also for our (House and Senate Republican) caucuses, I imagine," he said.
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