For the past few weeks Utah has been dolling out same-sex marriage licenses, but now the Supreme Court of the United States has issued a stay on the decision which legalized marriage equality in the state. What does this mean for the hundreds of couples who have already married?
On December 20, U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled that Utah’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is unlawful. What’s more, Shelby then refused appeals to stay his decision going into effect, saying that the ban had caused “harm” to same-sex couples and there was no compelling reason to let that harm continue while the State’s administration appeals. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals also refused an emergency stay on the decision. The State then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The State, in court documents filed on December 31, argued that a stay will be necessary to prevent “enormous disruption to the state and its citizens of potentially having to ‘unwind’ thousands of same-sex marriages.”
Other Utah lawyers acting on behalf of various parties have used a more overtly anti-gay sentiment: “Numerous same-sex marriages are now occurring every day in Utah,” state lawyers are quoted as writing. “Each one is an affront not only to the interests of the state and its citizens in being able to define marriage through ordinary democratic channels, but also to this court’s unique role as final arbiter.”
However, in court documents filed on Friday, January 3, lawyers acting on behalf of same-sex couples challenged that there is no real harm to the state should these marriages continue, but that same-sex couples can demonstrate the harms they face by being denied marriage recognition even just a day longer.
For instance, they cite the case of two women who have just got married: one of the women has a terminal illness and as such may not see the end of the matter should an appeal be launched as she could become too ill or even perish before a final result is secured.
“Forcing same-sex couples and their families to wait and hope for the best during the pendency of this appeal imposes an intolerable and dehumanizing burden that no family should have to endure,” attorneys for Magleyby and Greenwood, acting on behalf of same-sex couples, argued.
It was Justice Sonia Sotomayor who was tasked with deciding whether to deal with the issue on her own or put the matter before the full Court so that a majority could decide whether a stay on the decision was appropriate.
Indeed, Sotomayor did ask the court to weigh the issue and in what The New York Times is calling a “terse” order, the court has decided to stay the decision. This means no more new same-sex marriage licenses will be given out until the courts have decided whether the original ruling is sound or not.
What Does This Mean for Same-Sex Couples in Utah Who Are Already Married?
At the moment, that isn’t exactly clear. Couples who have married currently hold a valid and recognized marriage license that, for federal purposes at least, remains lawful. The vital question is whether Utah state will attempt to disregard these marriages until a final decision is reached — something that has yet to be clarified in court.
This comes as rhetoric in the state continues to escalate. The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a coalition of religious conservatives, some of whom are members of various state law enforcement agencies, held a rally over the weekend, apparently to instigate an “uprising” against what they are calling an attack on their freedom to deny gay marriage rights. The group is calling on local sheriffs to back any and all county clerks who refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
One man from Utah, Trestin Meacham, has even begun a hunger strike until the gay marriage ban is reinstated.
“I cannot stand by and do nothing while this evil takes root in my home,” Mr Meacham, 35, reportedly said. ”Some things in life are worth sacrificing one’s health and even life if necessary. I am but a man, and do not have the money and power to make any noticeable influence in our corrupt system. Nevertheless, I can do something that people in power cannot ignore.”
Meacham wants the state to nullify the ruling, which is a misapplication of the already dubious notion that states have the power to ignore federal court rulings as they see fit. Needless to say, Mr Meacham may be waiting a long time. Nevertheless, the fight in Utah is considered highly significant, and for a number of reasons.
It is the first time in recent years that a state like Utah has been forced to confront this issue. Due to its heavy religious affiliation to the Mormon church, Utah has always been considered by conservatives as one of the safer states (polygamy perhaps not withstanding). How this case plays out therefore is a test for both sides who wish to see what tactics will best work in the coming years.
Moreover, the court challenge represents the first time that the Supreme Court of the United States has been faced with a major case directly relating to same-sex marriage since its ruled to strike down DOMA Section 3 last year. We should guard against reading too much into this week’s stay, however, as the court seems to have gone out of its way not to give any kind of substantial comment on the wider issue of whether Utah’s voters have the right ban marriage equality by popular vote.
The next step in this case will be for the 10th District Court of Appeals to review the full ruling. Regardless, the decision now seems destined to be one of the next big marriage equality court cases to go before the Supreme Court.
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