Utah became the 18th U.S. state to extend marriage rights to
same-sex couples when a federal district judge, Robert Shelby, ruled
in December that a state ban on gay matrimony was unconstitutional.
The decision was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not
before more than 1,300 gay couples had tied the knot.
The Utah governor's office has said the state cannot recognize those
weddings — or grant those couples any marriage rights — until an
appeal of the case is decided by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals in Denver.
That prompted a separate lawsuit from four couples who say waiting
for marriage recognition denies them their constitutional rights,
leaves their lives in limbo and humiliates their families.
"The fact is, these people are legally married," said American Civil
Liberties Union attorney Joshua Block, whose organization is
representing the four couples. "The plaintiffs need to know their
The ACLU has asked U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball for a
preliminary injunction ordering Utah to immediately honor marriages
performed after Shelby's December 20 ruling, and to grant all
same-sex married couples the same rights afforded heterosexual
couples and their families.
Utah officials contend they cannot legally do so because such
recognition remains barred by the 2004 voter-approved initiative
defining marriage in the state constitution as a union exclusively
between a man and a woman.
On Wednesday state attorneys said they were not seeking to void
marriages performed in the 17 days between Shelby's lifting of the
ban and the January 6 stay of his decision, but to defend Utah's
refusal to recognize them for the time being, and they asked Kimball
to dismiss the lawsuit.
"It's reasonable for the state to take that position," Assistant
Utah Attorney General Joni Jones said during a hearing before
Kimball in Salt Lake City's federal courthouse.
The ACLU's Block said the eight plaintiffs in the case have all been
harmed by Utah's refusal to recognize their marriages because their
ability to make decisions about a host of issues — from healthcare
directives and major financial decisions to second-parent adoptions
of their children — had been disrupted.
Matthew Barraza and Tony Milner, for example, went to court the day
after their wedding so Milner could legally adopt the young son he
already parents with Barraza. But the case was put on hold when the
Utah Attorney General's Office advised the juvenile courts not to
proceed until after the gay marriage appeal had run its course.
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Block said that delay left the family mired in legal uncertainty and
relegated them to a second-class-citizen status.
"Their son is being told indirectly that his family is different and
his family is not as good as other families," Block said during oral
arguments that lasted 90 minutes.
Judge Kimball seemed to focus questions he posed to the attorneys on
whether the state could retroactively strip couples of what were
presumably legal marriage rights.
"They had ceremonies, words were said, (marriage licenses) were
issued. Does that mean nothing?" Kimball asked Jones.
"It does not mean nothing," Jones said. "But it also does not mean
the rights were vested permanently or in a way that they could not
Jones said the state fears that if Shelby's decision were reversed
on appeal, same-sex married couples would suffer greater harms
because the very basis of their marriages would be undermined.
A hearing in the appeal is set for April 10. Utah will likely move
to invalidate the marriages if it prevails in the case, she said.
Block said the outcome of the appeal should have no bearing on
same-sex couples whose marriages were legally performed in the
aftermath of Shelby's ruling, adding there was no legal precedent
for retroactively invalidating a marriage.
"You don't undo a marriage that has taken place," Block said.
It was not immediately clear how soon the judge might issue a
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)
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