Utah scrambles to halt same-sex marriages after surprise ruling overturns ban

Judge in Republican stronghold declared existing ban violated constitutional rights of gay and lesbian couples

Utah, a place better known more for the Mormon Church than for progressive politics has become the new homosexual rights battleground in America after a federal judge there flung open the door to same-sex marriage declaring that an existing ban violated the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian couples.

Last Friday the ruling by US District Judge Robert Shelby caught the mostly conservative establishment in Salt Lake City by surprise as they faced up to a new reality that their state, with its stalwart Republican record, had suddenly and unexpectedly become the 18th in the nation to allow gay marriage.

Even as gay couples rushed to take advantage and tie the knot, the standing of the judge’s ruling came under instant threat.  Judge Shelby on Monday turned down an emergency motion from the state asking that it be put on hold.  However, the state is expected to continue to seek an urgent appeal.

In its motion for stay, the state had argued that the judge should re-establish the previous status quo to avoid the “cloud of uncertainty” that will persist for gay and lesbian couples who may seal their relationships with marriages only to find that they are rendered illegal again down the road should the ruling be overturned at appeal. 

About 100 marriage licenses were issued to gay and lesbian couples even on Friday in the hours after his ruling and hundreds of other couples were expected to show up seeking marriage certificates as soon as government offices opened again on Monday morning.  The mayor of Park City tweeted that she intended to be at her town hall at 8 am ready to officiate if gay couples asked to be married.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs who bought the case in the first place argued that any attempt at a stay would cause unnecessary additional harm to the clients. “The status quo in Utah is that same-sex couples are marrying and their marriages must be recognized,” insisted Peggy Tomsic.  Putting the ruling on ice “cannot be considered a legitimate public interest,” she said.

Judge Shelby, appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama just two years ago, declared on Friday that the state ban, approved by voters in 2004, caused harm to gay couples and demeaned their children. In his 53-page ruling he also said the state had failed to demonstrate how allowing same-sex marriages would cause any damage or detriment to the institutional of heterosexual marriage.

That the current wave of new states allowing gay marriage should now have reached Utah is remarkable, not least because of the influence of the Mormons there.  The Church of Latter Day Saints, which was instrumental in the short-lived ban on gay marriage, known as Proposition 8, in California, put out a terse statement asserting that it remained committed to supporting “ traditional marriage” only.

In their failed motion for a stay on Monday, lawyers for the state contested the notion that it would bring no harm to gay couples.  On the contrary, the said, “the only potential harm plaintiffs may suffer if a stay is granted is, at most, a delay in their ability to marry in Utah or, in the case of an out-of-state marriage, recognition of that marriage.”

Governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, also reacted angrily to the Friday ruling, decrying what he called an “activist federal judge attempting to override the will of the people of Utah”.

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