Gay marriage in Utah: I do's proceed, but state asks again for a halt

Utah officials defending the state's ban on gay marriage plan to appeal a court ruling that lifted the ban Friday. In the meantime, it's taking awhile for final word on whether gay marriages in Utah can take place in the interim.

Benjamin Zack/Standard-Examiner/AP
Gage Church (l.) and Tim Sharp kiss at the Hampton Inn in Ogden, Utah after becoming the first gay couple to be legally married in Weber County on Monday, Dec. 23. Over 60 couples were married in hallways and side rooms of the hotel as they tried to beat a possible stay on the ruling to allow gay same-sex marriage in Utah.

Gay couples in Utah who wish to get married can continue to do so even while state officials battle in court to restore Utah’s ban on same-sex wedlock.

That’s the upshot of legal action as of Monday, after two federal courts refused to grant Utah’s request for a temporary halt to gay marriages pending a state appeal to a US judge’s recent decision that allows it.

That news came as a relief to those who back gay marriage, who worried that the opportunity for gay couples to obtain state-issued marriage licenses would be very short-lived. It should also begin to eliminate confusion in county clerks’ offices around the state about whether to issue licenses to same-sex couples or not.

However, the immediate legal wrangling is not over on the issue. State officials are proceeding to ask the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, again, to halt gay marriages for now. The court had rejected the first such request Sunday, saying a lower court should weigh in first. It's not known how soon it could make a determination about whether gay couples can marry pending appeal.

A bit of celebratory pandemonium has ensued in Utah since late Friday, when a US district judge issued his ruling that declared the state’s ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional – a violation of gay and lesbian couples’ 14th Amendment rights of due process and equal protection. His decision makes Utah the 18th state to allow same-sex marriages. Legalization of such marriages in the home state of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is significant because leading Mormons have been instrumental in defending gay-marriage bans nationwide. Moreover, two-thirds of Utah voters in 2004 approved the gay marriage ban and made it part of the state's constitution.

Most counties in Utah had refrained from issuing licenses over the weekend, saying they needed guidance from the state pending appeal of the ruling by US district Judge Robert Shelby. Bryan Thompson, clerk and auditor of Utah County, said in a statement Monday that he wanted “further clarification” before issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He said his office “will not be making any policy changes” until further guidance from the state’s attorney general.

At time of writing Monday, the Utah Attorney General’s Office had not issued that guidance. One reason for the delay may be timing: The governor on Monday named a new attorney general to replace John Swallow, who has resigned and who is under investigation by a state House panel for alleged bribery. 

Cache, Box Elder, Duchesne, San Juan, Uintah, and Wayne counties all say they, likewise, are waiting to hear from the state before proceeding with the licenses.

Other counties proceeded with issuing licenses, but with caution. Officials in Weber County opened their doors Saturday, when their offices are ordinarily closed. The line of people seeking marriage licenses soon stretched to at least 1,000 people, according to Fox 13 News, forcing officials to close their doors.

Other counties had started issuing licenses to same-sex couples immediately after Judge Shelby’s decision. Salt Lake County officials extended hours through 7:45 p.m. Friday. At least 100 couples were married there Monday.

In Washington County, two licenses were issued Friday. Brock Belnap, attorney for Washington County, told Fox 13 News that “there’s no legal basis to treat same-sex couples differently from heterosexual couples requesting marriage licenses.”

In a statement Friday, Davis County officials said it would issue licenses “until a stay is granted.” “We do not advise folks they can disregard an order issued by a court with jurisdiction, even if we/they disagree.”

As of 6 a.m. Monday, about 25 couples had lined up outside the Davis County offices and were married immediately after receiving their licenses, according to the Standard-Examiner. 

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