Utah will allow gays to continue to marry in the state, after federal judge Robert J. Shelby handed down a rejection of the state’s request for a stay on the decision. Shelby is the judge responsible for the original ruling that slammed a 2004 state law that prevented same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.
The traditionally conservative Utah is considered a pivotal battleground in the battle for marriage equality, and advocates are optimistic that a victory there will bode well for the movement nationally. Utah is the center of operations for the Mormon Church, which has been very active in seeking bans on gay marriage and civil unions around the country.
Shelby’s decision on Friday was the catalyst for hundreds of gay couples to flood county offices seeking marriage licenses in a cyclone of weddings. The reaction of the various county clerk’s offices in Utah was reportedly mixed, with some issuing licenses and others turning couples away.
Governor Gary Herbert issued a statement on Saturday asking for a speedy resolution to the appeal, citing the chaos and confusion on the ground due to the decision. Herbert has been an advocate of the 2004 law upholding what have been deemed “traditional marriage.”
Judge Shelby’s decision has legal implications for more than two dozen other states with frameworks similar to Utah’s. Opponents of gay marriage will likely seek an appeal with the 10th Circuit Court, which has the power to overturn Shelby’s ruling. The ultimate arbiter of the Utah’s marriage laws will likely be the Supreme Court, setting up a ferocious legal battle between two entrenched positions that will have wide-reaching ramifications for marriage equality throughout the country.
The Supreme Court will have a number of options open to it once the Utah case reaches its halls. It could fully uphold Shelby’s ruling and also call for a higher level of scrutiny of all anti-gay laws across the board. The court could uphold Shelby, yet not call for heightened scrutiny. This would extend constitutional protections to gay couples seeking marriage, but not go so far as to require examination of other discriminatory laws. Another option would be for the court to strike down Shelby as it applies to Utah law, but require states to recognize gay marriages performed in other states. The Supreme Court could also simply hand down a decision against Shelby and prevent Utah from continuing to allow gays to marry.
The Supreme Court, as currently constituted, tends to lean to the political right; at the same time, national sentiment seems to have swung in the direction of extending marriage rights to gay couples. This tension makes it difficult to predict the outcome of the Shelby case, as well as the long-term fate of the marriage equality movement. Forces on both sides of the issue have been marshaling public support and maneuvering in conjunction with their political allies to frame the issue before the next major election cycle.
Advocates of the marriage equality argue that there is no legitimate reason to discriminate against gay couples in the civil sphere, pointing out the difference in benefits and services extended to married couples. Opponents of gay marriage argue that allowing same-sex marriages dilutes the definition of marriage and flies in the face of the traditional values upheld by many Americans.
Once the Utah decision reaches the Supreme Court, we may finally have a ruling from the highest court in the land as to whether gays will be allowed to marry and acquire all the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts.
By Mark Clarke
Salt Lake Tribune