Utah is on course to being the 18th state to recognize marriage equality after a federal judge struck down the state’s constitutional ban. Here’s what you need to know, and what’s next in this fight.
Utah state voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2004, known as Amendment 3. The ban stated: “Marriage consists only of the legal union between a man and a woman. No other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as a marriage or given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect.”
U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby on Friday struck down that constitutional amendment, finding that the ban violates same-sex couples’ due process and equal protection rights as enshrined under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The case was brought by three gay and lesbian couples. The state defended the ban as being necessary to providing a stable environment for children and for furthering the state’s interest in ensuring opposite sex couples marry.
In the ruling, Judge Shelby made some important statements debunking the state’s arguments, writing in the 53 page ruling:
Rather than protecting or supporting the families of opposite-sex couples, Amendment 3 perpetuates inequality by holding that the families and relationships of same-sex couples are not now, nor ever will be, worthy of recognition. Amendment 3 does not thereby elevate the status of opposite-sex marriage; it merely demeans the dignity of same-sex couples. And while the State cites an interest in protecting traditional marriage, it protects that interest by denying one of the most traditional aspects of marriage to thousands of its citizens: the right to form a family that is strengthened by a partnership based on love, intimacy, and shared responsibilities. The Plaintiffs’ desire to publicly declare their vows of commitment and support to each other is a testament to the strength of marriage in society, not a sign that, by opening its doors to all individuals, it is in danger of collapse.
The judge added that there was no material difference between banning same-sex couples from marrying and banning interracial marriage. Of particular importance though is one paragraph in the judge’s conclusion in which he seems to explicitly state that the US Constitution does provide a right to marriage equality, saying:
Moreover, the Constitution protects the Plaintiffs’ fundamental rights, which include the right to marry and the right to have that marriage recognized by their government. These rights would be meaningless if the Constitution did not also prevent the government from interfering with the intensely personal choices an individual makes when that person decides to make a solemn commitment to another human being. The Constitution therefore protects the choice of one’s partner for all citizens, regardless of their sexual identity.
This is one of only a handful of rulings on the marriage equality issue that have specifically addressed a right to same-sex marriage under the U.S. Constitution, and for that reason it is important for the marriage equality fight — especially in terms of what it could mean for the future.
What’s Next for Marriage Equality in Utah?
At the time of writing, marriage equality is legal in Utah and several same-sex couples have already taken advantage of this and married. However, it is widely expected that Utah’s administration will appeal this ruling. A first step toward that will be the state requesting a stay to prevent more marriages taking place. That will likely be requested in the next few days.
An appeal will need to go before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the Court will be tasked with looking at the details of the case. There is cause to think this ruling could go even reach the Supreme Court of the United States, once again putting the question of marriage equality before the highest court in the land. What’s more, this ruling with its explicit language surrounding the right to marriage equality, could finally see the Supreme Court recognize same-sex marriage as an undeniable right.
Yet for now we can celebrate Utah joining 17 other states, now including New Mexico, and Washington D.C. in recognizing marriage equality and the equal rights of its gay and lesbian citizens. What a Christmas gift!
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