December 20, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Utah judge legalizes same-sex marriage
Seth Anderson, Michael Ferguson, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, Utah, Salt Lake City, gay news, Washington Blade

A federal judge in Utah has struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Michael Ferguson (left) and Seth Anderson were married in Salt Lake City. (Photo courtesy of Seth Anderson)

A federal judge in Utah has ruled the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex nuptials is unconstitutional, enabling gay couples in the state to apply for marriage licenses immediately.

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby, an Obama appointee, issued 53-page decision on Friday, determining the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates gay couples’ rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“Applying the law as it is required to do, the court holds that Utah’s prohibition on same- sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law,” Shelby writes. “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. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional.”

The decision — handed down in response to a request for summary judgment from all parties involved — makes Utah the 18th state in the country where same-sex marriage is legal. No stay was placed in the decision, so gay couples can apply for marriage licenses immediately.

One such couple, Seth Anderson and his new spouse, documented their application for a marriage license in Utah on Twitter within an hour after the ruling.

 

Gov. Gary Herbert (R-Utah) opposes same-sex marriage and defended the ban against the litigation in court, so is expected to appeal the decision to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Herbert, along with Acting Attorney General Brian Tarbet, filed a notice of appeal with the district court following the ruling.

In a statement, Tarbet said his office is requesting an emergency stay in anticipation of an appeal to higher 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,” Tarbet said. “The state is requesting an emergency stay pending the filing of an appeal. 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.”

Earlier, Herbert said he’s “disappointed” with the judge’s ruling and is examining ways to keep the ban to same-sex marriage in place within the state.

“I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah,” Herbert said. “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.”

The ruling marks the second time a court has struck down a ban on same-sex marriage that was constitutional and not statutory. The first was the 2010 ruling against California’s Proposition 8. It’s also the first time a court struck down a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on Prop 8 and Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told the Washington Blade the decision is “a huge win” — not just for same-sex couples in Utah, but the entire country.

“To have such a historic ruling take place in Utah speaks volumes about our country’s trajectory from discrimination to acceptance and support for same-sex couples and their families,” Minter said.

The challenge to the law was brought by three Utah couples – Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity; Karen Archer and Kate Call; and Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge — who were represented by the law firm of Magleby & Greenwood. The couples either wished to be married in Utah or were legally married elsewhere and wanted their home state to recognize their marriage.

The decision makes heavy use of the Supreme Court decision against DOMA as part of the reasoning striking down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage. Ironically, Shelby draws on the dissent of U.S. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote it would be “easy” for judges to apply the DOMA decision to state laws banning same-sex marriage.

“The court agrees with Justice Scalia’s interpretation of Windsor and finds that the important federalism concerns at issue here are nevertheless insufficient to save a state-law prohibition that denies the Plaintiffs their rights to due process and equal protection under the law,” Shelby writes.

Utah voters in 2004 approved the state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, known as Amendment 3, by a margin of 65.8 percent to 33.2 percent. It bans both same-sex marriage and marriage-like unions.

Shelby writes the issue of same-sex marriage is “politically charged in the current climate” and more so because the current law is in place as a result of referendum. However, Shelby rules that even a vote of the people can’t defy the U.S. Constitution.

“It is only under exceptional circumstances that a court interferes with such action,” Shelby writes. “But the legal issues presented in this lawsuit do not depend on whether Utah’s laws were the result of its legislature or a referendum, or whether the laws passed by the widest or smallest of margins. The question presented here depends instead on the Constitution itself, and on the interpretation of that document contained in binding precedent from the Supreme Court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

The judge concludes by drawing on the 1966 case of Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state bans on interracial marriage throughout the country, saying the defense in favor of these bans 50 years ago is the same the state provided for Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“For the reasons discussed above, the court finds these arguments as unpersuasive as the Supreme Court found them fifty years ago,” Shelby writes. “Anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia and elsewhere were designed to, and did, deprive a targeted minority of the full measure of human dignity and liberty by denying them the freedom to marry the partner of their choice. Utah’s Amendment 3 achieves the same result.”

Marc Solomon, national campaign director for the LGBT group Freedom to Marry, said ruling represents a historic end to a year of tremendous success for the marriage equality movement.

“The federal district judge has done the right thing by affirming that marriage is a fundamental freedom for all people, gay and non-gay – for all of us who believe in liberty and fairness,” Solomon said. “We hope that officials implement this ruling statewide. As same-sex couples celebrate their weddings, more people will see that sharing in the freedom to marry helps families and harms no one.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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