Joy, Surprise, Disappointment, after Federal Judge Strikes down Utah’s Amendment 3

Same-sex couples and their families wait for marriage licences at the Salt Lake County Clerks Office Friday night.
Hundreds of same-sex couples and their families wait for marriage licences at the Salt Lake County Clerks Office Friday night.

In a stunning move Friday afternoon, just as most of Utah’s press was focused on the John Swallow investigation hearings on Capitol Hill, U.S. Federal District Judge Robert Shelby struck down Utah Constitutional Amendment 3, which defined marriage as a union exclusively between a man and woman.

In a fifty-three page ruling, Shelby ruled that the law banning gay marriage conflicts with the Constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. “Rather than protecting or supporting the families of opposite-sex couples, Amendment 3 perpetuates inequality by holding that the families and relationships of same-sex couples are not now, nor ever will be, worthy of recognition. Amendment 3 does not thereby elevate the status of opposite-sex marriages; it merely demeans the dignity of same-sex couples,” Shelby wrote in his ruling.

“The State of Utah has provided no evidence that opposite-sex marriage will be affected in any way by same-sex marriage. In the absence of such evidence, the State’s unsupported fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the State’s refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens. Moreover, the Constitution protects the Plaintiffs’ fundamental rights, which include the right to marry and the right to have that marriage recognized by their government. These rights would be meaningless if the Constitution did not also prevent the government from interfering with the intensely personal choices an individual makes when that person decides to make a solemn commitment to another human being. The Constitution therefore protects the choice of one’s partner for all citizens, regardless of their sexual identity.”

Amendment 3 was passed by Utah voters in the November 2004 election, with nearly 66 percent voting in favor (a BYU poll released this year now shows 71 percent of Utahns in favor of some form of legal recognition for same sex couples). Out of Utah’s 29 counties, Grand and Summit were the only counties where a majority were against passage. Those who opposed the ban included then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, KSL radio personality Doug Wright, and the Episcopal Church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not take an official position, though it published a statement endorsing constitutional amendments that define marriage.

The lawsuit was originally filed in U.S. District Court March 25 of this year by Derek Kitchen, Moudi Sbeity, Karen Archer, Kate Call, Laurie Wood, and Kody Partridge, three gay and lesbian couples who wanted to marry but were unable to do so because of Amendment 3.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert (Republican) issued a statement decrying the court’s ruling. “I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah. 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 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement criticizing the court’s decision and reaffirming their support for traditional marriage. “The Church has been consistent in its support of traditional marriage while teaching that all people should be treated with respect. This ruling by a district court will work its way through the judicial process. We continue to believe that voters in Utah did the right thing by providing clear direction in the state constitution that marriage should be between a man and a woman and we are hopeful that this view will be validated by a higher court.”

Shortly after the ruling was announced, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen began issuing marriage licenses after Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill determined there was no legal ground to deny marriage licences to same-sex couples following the judge’s ruling. Salt Lake City Mayor, Ralph Becker arrived at the clerks office to officiate weddings until the offices close. Beker was also joined by officials of various churches and citizens who have been given the power to perform wedding ceremonies.

Meanwhile, the State of Utah has already said it intends to appeal the ruling. In a statement released Friday evening, the State Attorney General’s office announced that it is “requesting an emergency stay pending the filing of an appeal.” If the ruling stands, Utah will be the 18th state to allow same-sex marriage.

Judge Shelby rejected the State’s request for an emergency stay until the Attorney General’s office put the request in writing and the Judge had also heard arguments from the plaintiffs. That means hundreds of same-sex couples will likely continue to get married in Utah over the next few days, until the stay is decided on.