It was one year ago on Dec. 20, 2013 that a federal judge in Utah ruled the U.S. constitution guarantees the right for same-sex couples to marry in the state, starting an unprecedented cascade of 35 or so court rulings in favor of marriage equality over the course of the next year.
First among same-sex couples to marry in the state were Salt Lake City residents J. Seth Anderson and Michael Ferguson, who became an overnight Internet sensation for broadcasting their wedding on Twitter. The couple, who spoke with the Washington Blade on their anniversary, led the way for 1,300 same-sex couples to marry before the Supreme Court temporarily halted any further weddings from taking place.
Anderson said what especially sticks out for the couple one year later was “complete unexpectedness” of the court ruling at the time, although he had a feeling immediately afterward the change was big.
“That night, when Michael and I, were walking home I remember distinctly feeling that the ground felt different, the air felt different, that the stars looked different,” Anderson said. “I could feel that it was palatable that the world had shifted, and I remember that very vividly.”
In the year-long period since U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby determined the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits Utah from banning same-sex marriage in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision against DOMA, 26 federal district judges, four federal appeals courts and a half-dozen state courts at various levels followed with similar rulings.
In a handful of the states affected by the decisions, including Utah, judges refused to stay their rulings, enabling same-sex couples to wed almost immediately in places where laws previously prohibited same-sex marriage.
Only a handful of courts in this period upheld bans on same-sex marriage: A federal court in Louisiana, another federal court in Puerto Rico and a circuit judge in Tennessee. The most significant of these decisions was the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of bans on same-sex marriage in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Ferguson said the association of Utah with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which heavily backed the passage of California’s now-overturned Proposition 8, made having the court ruling there first among others “a major source of pride.”
“It was very gratifying after so many years of the LDS Church spending immense amounts of financial and political capital to oppress the LGBT community, there was this poetic, sweet justice in Utah then being one of the key states before this burst of acceleration toward full equality,” Ferguson said.
The Utah ruling was distinct not only because it was first federal court ruling on marriage in the aftermath of the DOMA decision, but also because it shattered expectations of what would be necessary to bring marriage equality to the most conservative of states.
Evan Wolfson, president of the LGBT group Freedom to Marry, said the language in the ruling itself helped propel other courts to similarly find a right for same-sex couples to marry.
“The ruling was clear and compelling, and contained what might be my favorite line from all of the rulings we’ve won over the past couple years: ‘It is not the Constitution that has changed, but the knowledge of what it means to be gay or lesbian,'” Wolfson said. “The case thus affirmed our strategy of changing hearts and minds and building a critical mass of states and support to create the climate that would enable the kinds of rulings we have since seen across the country and that set the stage for the Supreme Court win we have always aimed toward (and must keep working for until we’ve won).”
Moreover, Utah same-sex marriages were unique among others because they were subject to legal turmoil over the course the year.
After the Supreme Court stayed the weddings, Gov. Gary Herbert announced the state wouldn’t recognize the marriages, but U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced they would be recognized for federal purposes. The ACLU of Utah filed litigation seeking to compel Utah to recognize the marriages, and although a district court granted a preliminary injunction in favor of same-sex couples, which was upheld by the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, that decision was later stayed by the Supreme Court.
Finally, the Supreme Court announced it wouldn’t review the decision in favor of right for same-sex couples to marry in Utah, ending the process of appeal of all litigation and enshrining marriage equality in the state.
Anderson said he and Ferguson like to joke all the legal turmoil over the course of the past year has made it so the couple is “on our third marriage this year.”
“I remember feeling a sadness really that we were under such attack for so many months, and then they couldn’t do that any more,” Anderson said. “I still think I need a little bit more distance to fully understand and comprehend just how violent that was.”
As rulings in favor of same-sex marriage continued in the year to follow, public support for same-sex marriage continued to be strong. In March, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found a record high of 59 percent of Americans approve of same-sex marriage, with only 34 percent opposed. Although some have speculated growth in support for same-sex marriage is now stagnant, polls continue to show more than majority of the United States backs gay nuptials.
Andrew Flores, public opinion project director for the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, said upcoming research from the think-tank currently undergoing scientific peer review demonstrates the legalization of same-sex marriage contributes to its rise in support.
“We have been able to find that the opinions of residents of states that passed marriage equality tend to increase their support for the policy,” Flores said. “We suspect that this may be that passage of the policy may make same-sex marriage more familiar to people. We have also found that when these policies pass, feelings toward lesbian and gay people also positively change.”
But even though the number of marriage-equality states has skyrocketed from 19 to 35 over the course of a year, the number of states that prohibit LGBT discrimination increased by just one after Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law a transgender civil rights measure in Maryland. Fourteen states with marriage equality are left with no explicit LGBT on-discrimination protections for employment, non-discrimination or housing.
Laura Durso, director of the LGBT project at the Center for American Progress, said the expansion of marriage equality into states without non-discrimination protections means “loving and committed same-sex couples in those 14 states can now legally marry and then legally be fired for doing so all on the same day.”
“Newly married spouses will effectively out themselves on employment, health, or tax forms, or credit or housing applications without protection from discrimination that may occur in those contexts,” Durso said. “Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans should not have to choose between exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to marry and securing a job or safe and stable shelter.”
It’s for that reason that the Center for American Progress is among the groups calling for passing a comprehensive federal non-discrimination bill with protections for LGBT people based on employment, housing, credit, federal programs, public accommodations and education.
Troy Williams, executive director of the statewide LGBT group Equality Utah, said he’s unaware thus far of any incidents of LGBT discrimination in his state as a result of same-sex couples marrying, but is on the lookout for such stories.
“So far, we have not received any specific reports about people being discriminated against post-marriage,” Williams said. “I’ve had reports of some difficulty having their work process spousal insurance claims, but they tend to be resolved after an appeal. We are in the process of soliciting harm stories though, and will keep you posted.”
Although he said he hasn’t faced workplace and housing discrimination, Ferguson said he feels has he faced harassment in Utah as a result of his decision to enter into a same-sex marriage.
“I definitely have seen people react negatively and flat-out call me an enemy to my face and say I have now used — the whole tripe we’ve heard before — this sacred institution as a political symbol in order to make a mockery of things they hold to be sacred,” Ferguson said.
Anderson acknowledged same-sex marriage in Utah angered a lot of people in the state and predicted the conservative state legislature may devise a way to counter the court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in the next session.
“I’m waiting to see, especially given the Hobby Lobby ruling and the religious freedom argument that’s coming, that marriage isn’t the end of the line,” Anderson said.
The expected culmination of these rulings is a nationwide decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 on whether the same-sex couples have a right to marry nationwide. Although the Supreme Court refused to review rulings in October from federal appeals courts in favor of same-sex marriage, that is expected to change now that the Sixth Circuit has upheld marriage bans with its jurisdiction, creating a split among the circuit courts.
Plaintiff same-sex couples in each of the Sixth Circuit states have filed petitions for certiorari as have plaintiffs couples in the Louisiana case, even though the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over that state, has yet to render a decision on the ban on gay nuptials in that state. The Supreme Court docketed the Louisiana lawsuits for its Jan. 9 conference as one of the cases it may consider before its term is out this summer.
Ferguson said the Supreme Court should take heed of the many thousands of same-sex couples who were newly able to marry over the course of 2014 as it weighs whether to find a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
“If the interests of a government is to promote the general welfare, look at the lives of these couples that are now more secure, look at the children of these families that are more well-adjusted, look at the way that incorporations of citizens of the country helps everybody,” Ferguson said. “All the healthy psychological markers that happen time and time again with stable relationships are things that we want to have in our country. Again, if one of the explicit purposes of the American government is to promote the general, hey, the proof is in the pudding.”