(CNN) — It was joyful mayhem Friday night in the county clerk’s office in Salt Lake City, Utah, after a federal judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, saying the law “conflicts with the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law.”
“I proposed to my partner of 27 years in June, but I said, ‘We’re not going to get married until we can get married in Utah,” state Sen. Jim Dabakis, who is openly gay, told CNN.
“He said, ‘So, that’s just an excuse never to get married.'”
Not so. As soon as the judge’s ruling was reported, “We ran down here,” Dabakis said as he surveyed the crowd. “It’s a madhouse down here. There’s hundreds of people, wedding certificates are being issued, there’s marriages taking place all over the hallways. Everybody’s embracing. It’s just a warm, wonderful moment in the state of Utah.”
In striking down the state law, which voters had approved in 2004, U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby wrote in a 53-page ruling that the state’s “current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason.
“Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional,” he said.
Shelby said lawyers for the state had offered no evidence that opposite-sex marriage would be affected and that their “fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the State’s refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens.”
In addition, the Constitution protects the rights of same-sex couples, including their right to marry and to have that marriage recognized by their government, he said. “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.”
The lawsuit was brought by one gay and two lesbian couples in Utah who wish to marry but have been unable to do so because the Utah Constitution prohibits same-sex marriage.
The decision was greeted with joy from a spokesman for GLAAD, formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “At last, loving and committed couples in Utah will have the opportunity to celebrate marriage equality this holiday season,” said Wilson Cruz in a posting on its website.
“We are seeing state leaders and more and more citizens recognize that loving and committed couples should not be legally kept apart,” said Cruz. “We look forward to seeing that momentum to continue in 2014.”
Gov. Gary R. Herbert expressed disappointment at the ruling by Shelby, whom he called “an activist federal judge.” Herbert said he was working with his legal counsel and the acting attorney general “to determine the best course to defend traditional marriage within the borders of Utah.”
A spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a statement that it supports “traditional marriage,” while teaching that everyone should be treated with respect. “This ruling by a district court will work its way through the judicial process,” Eric Hawkins said.
“We continue to believe that voters in Utah did the right thing by providing clear direction in the state Constitution that marriage should be between a man and a woman and we are hopeful that this view will be validated by a higher court.”
The president of the National Organization for Marriage, Brian Brown, called the ruling “a travesty of justice.”
In a statement, he added, “This trend of vetoing the voters from the bench must be stopped.”
That view was not shared by Clifford Rosky, chairman of the board of Equality Utah. “We think it is a thoughtful and careful ruling that is based on the Supreme Court decision last summer and we expect that it will be upheld ultimately by the United States Supreme Court,” he said.
By early Friday evening, Rosky told CNN he had signed as a witness to multiple marriages among same-sex couples.
Though the state has already filed a notice of appeal, the state’s lawyers did not file a motion for a stay in district court, which allowed the marriages to begin at once. “Why they didn’t ask the district court for a stay is a mystery, to say the least,” Rosky said.
“There are hundreds of people here — it’s past 5 o’clock and the clerk is not closing the door.”
Same-sex marriage is banned by constitutional amendment or state law in: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
But it is legal in 17 other U.S states and the District of Columbia: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Worldwide, 16 other countries (and parts of Mexico) have laws allowing same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships. Most of these are in Europe and South America.
Civil unions, which are legal in Colorado, grant couples most of the rights of state civil marriages, but provide none of the federal benefits of marriage, such as Social Security benefits.
These rights include spousal support, medical decision-making privileges, access to a partner’s insurance, and hospital visitation rights.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled that it is reluctant to issue a national opinion on the matter, lower courts and states have not been so reluctant, said Carl Tobias, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond.
“I’m just struck by how quickly this is all moving,” he said. “It just seems like it’s picking up steam in terms of challenges.”
He attributed the change to a greater acceptance of gays and lesbians, especially among young people. “They just don’t see this as a great moral issue that needs to be something codified as a prohibition in the law,” he said. “Everybody knows gay people — either in their families or friends or workplaces — so what’s the big deal?”
President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage and defining marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” in 1996.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected parts of DOMA, in a 5-4 decision that dismissed an appeal over same-sex marriage on jurisdictional grounds and ruled same-sex spouses legally married in a state may receive federal benefits.
On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled unanimously to allow same-sex marriage statewide and ordered county clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses to qualified same-sex couples.
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