Utah's Gay Marriage Ban Is Back, Leaving LGBT Couples in Legal Limbo

About 1,000 couples were left wondering: Will their marriages be honored?

Gay couples waited in line to apply for a marriage license at the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office in Salt Lake City, on Dec. 23, 2013. It's unclear how long the wait will be for LGBT couples who still want to marry in Utah. (PHOTO Jim Urquhart/Reuters).

Jan 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Ameera Butt is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, Merced Sun-Star, McClatchy newspapers and the Los Angeles Daily Journal, among others.

Trestin Meacham, a devout Mormon in Utah, posted a picture of himself to social media on Monday, eating what looks like a spoonful of yogurt to celebrate the end of a weeks-long anti-gay hunger strike.

Meacham told media he only drank water and ate vitamins from Dec. 21 onward, to demonstrate his opposition to gay marriage, which for brief window of time was legal in his state.

But the U.S. Supreme Court put those marriages on hold Monday as a federal appeals court ponders the issue—and the LGBT community is back to hungering for equal marriage rights. Experts expect the Supreme Court ultimately to decide the case, with repercussions for 30 states with gay-marriage bans.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled Utah’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, and between then and yesterday, about 1,000 gay and lesbian couples tied the knot.

Effective immediately, Monday’s stay means no new same-sex unions can take place.

“Every day that goes by, same-sex couples and their children are being harmed by not being able to marry and be treated equally,” said Salt Lake City–based attorney James Magleby, one of the two attorneys representing the same-sex couples who want to overturn the ban. “This [Supreme Court action] is obviously disappointing for the families in Utah who need the protection of marriage and now have to wait until the appeal is over.”

It isn’t unusual for the court to stay a decision that is pending appeal, particularly in cases in which a state law has been declared unconstitutional, Magleby said.

Advocates for Utah’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community called the Supreme Court decision disappointing.

Couples who have kids together worry their newly legal marriage will not be recognized by the state and courts, said Clifford Rosky, board chair of Equality Utah, the state's largest LGBT civil rights organization.

Salt Lake City has the country’s highest percentage of gay or lesbian couples raising children, according to a 2013 study from the Williams Institute. There were 3,909 same-sex couples in all of Utah last year, according to the Williams Institute, a national think tank at the UCLA School of Law that conducts research on sexual orientation and gender-identity law and public policy. Gallup surveys put the percentage of the the state’s total population identifies itself as LGBT at 2.7.

“We know they were entitled to marry in Utah when they did, and to retroactively not recognize those marriages seems harmful to Utah families,” said Rosky. “If Utah refuses, I would think that’s an unprecedented and cruel step.”

The Utah Attorney General’s Office said it is carefully evaluating the legal status of marriages that were performed since the District Court’s decision and will not rush to a decision that affects Utah citizens so personally.

Attorney General Sean Reyes last week replaced John Swallow, who made headlines after campaign staffers reportedly emailed each other messages making fun of a transgender person. Swallow resigned following unrelated, campaign-finance allegations.

Same-sex couples who wanted to make it official are now going to be put on hold, said John Netto, board chair of Utah Pride Center, a nonprofit serving the LGBT community.

Some of Netto's friends have marriage licenses and are trying to plan their weddings.

Despite a setback and a delay in marriage equality, Netto said the LGBT community remains optimistic. There’s been a huge influx of support from the straight and youth communities, Netto said.

Even staunch opponents have wavered in their opposition, including politicians at the state legislature level.

“We are just seeing people's hearts being moved by love. At the end of the day that’s what's accelerating the movement, in my opinion, is that people are seeing the humanity of the gay movement,” Netto said.

Utah is a conservative state; most of its residents have voted Republican in every presidential election after 1964, and the majority of its residents are part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In 2004, voters approved a prohibition of same-sex marriage.

The state’s opening brief in the appeals case is due on Jan. 27, and the plaintiffs are to respond by Feb. 18, Rosky said.

“People all over the state are trying to figure out whether the state and the courts are going to recognize their marriage, and they must be very frustrated and disappointed and understandably so,” Rosky said.