Federal judge strikes down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage

Paul Fraughton | Salt Lake Tribune People gather at the amphitheater at Library Square for a vigil in support of gay marriage on March 25, 2013. Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled on Dec. 20 that Utah's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. The man on the right is unidentified.
Paul Fraughton | Salt Lake Tribune People gather at the amphitheater at Library Square for a vigil in support of gay marriage on March 25, 2013. Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled on Dec. 20 that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. The man on the right is unidentified.

A federal judge in Utah Friday struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, saying the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process.

“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,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby. “Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional.”

Shelby’s ruling is the first decision to address whether a state may ban same-sex marriages or refuse to recognize legal same-sex marriages since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision this summer that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The Utah judge ruled just 16 days after he heard arguments in the case and well before his self-imposed deadline to render a decision by Jan. 7, when the next hearing in the matter was to be held.

“It feels unreal,” said Moudi Sbeity, who with his partner Derek L. Kitchen were plaintiffs in the case. “I’m just very thrilled that Derek and I will be able to get married soon, if all goes well and the state doesn’t appeal. We want a farmer’s market wedding because it’s where we spend a lot of time.”

The two make and sell Mediterranean-style spreads at farmer’s markets throughout Utah. Sbeity said he and Kitchen, both 25, had just heard the news from their attorney. Kitchen “just has a very large smile on his face,” Sbeity said.

The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are: Karen Archer, 67, and Kate Call, 60; and Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge, 47. Archer and Call already have a marriage license issued in Iowa, but joined the lawsuit to protest that their legal marriage was not recognized in Utah. The other two couples applied for a license from the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office in March but were denied one.

Peggy A. Tomsic and James E. Magleby, who represented the plaintiffs, called the decision historic, saying in a statement that it brings “marriage equality to Utah, not only for the plaintiffs, but all other same-sex couples residing in Utah who desire to marry or have their legal marriage from another state recognized in Utah.”

“While the Utah decision only directly affects same-sex couples in Utah, it will provide legal precedent to support other plaintiffs’s constitutional challenges to similar state laws in the remaining states where there is marriage inequality,” the statement said.

“We cannot capture in words the gratitude and joy plaintiffs feel that Judge Shelby had the courage to declare, as the United States Constitution requires, that same-sex couples, like all other U.S. citizens and Utah residents, are constitutionally entitled to marriage equality in Utah.”

Tomsic said, however, that since the state is likely to appeal, the fight is not over. But she believes the ruling will prevail.

Shelby said that while he agreed with Utah that marriage has traditionally been left to regulation by the states, such laws must comply with the Constitution.

“The issue the court must address in this case is not who should define marriage, but the narrow question of whether Utah’s current definition of marriage is permissible under the Constitution,” the judge said.

Shelby acknowledged the politically charged climate that surrounds the issue and said that was particularly true in Utah, where 66 percent of voters approved the amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2004.

“It is only under exceptional circumstances that a court interferes with such action,” Shelby said. “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 ACLU of Utah filed an amicus brief in the case and legal director John Mejia said Friday the organization was “thrilled” by the decision.

“We think that it was a discriminatory law that only served to deny loving and committed couples the protection and dignity of marriage,” he said. “We congratulate the brave plaintiffs for making such a historic stand and their legal team for putting up such a great fight.”

With the ruling, Utah becomes the 18th state where same-sex marriage has become legal through either court decisions, legislation or referendums.

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune, Brooke Adams
Published: December 20, 2013 02:07PM
Updated: December 20, 2013 03:00PM

Tribune reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this report.

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