Marriage equality in Utah awaits Supreme Court decision

Natalie Dicou and her partner Nicole Christensen wait to get married at the Salt Lake County Clerks office, Dec. 20, 2013.
Natalie Dicou and her partner Nicole Christensen wait to get married at the Salt Lake County Clerks office, Dec. 20, 2013. 

Opponents and defendants of Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage now await a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court as to whether gay couples can continue to marry across the Beehive State.

Following a request from Utah attorneys for the nation’s highest court to temporary halt same-sex nuptials, which began two weeks ago in the Mormon-dominated state, plaintiffs challenging Amendment 3--Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage--filed their response.

In a legal brief submitted on Friday to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has jurisdiction over the region that includes Utah, marriage equality proponents argued that the state had not met its “especially heavy burden” for why the Supreme Court should block same-sex marriages where lower courts did not. Utah attorneys had asked both the federal judge who struck down the ban on same-sex marriage in a Dec. 20 ruling, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay, but both requests were denied. The state then turned to the Supreme Court for a delay on the ruling while its appeal plays out.

“Throughout their application, [Utah attorneys] fail to acknowledge or apply the heightened burden they must meet when asking this Court to grant a stay in a case still pending before the Court of Appeals,” said plaintiffs in their brief.

Utah attorneys demonstrated neither that the Court of Appeals was “demonstrably wrong,” nor that they would be “seriously and irreparably injured [without] the stay,” argued the plaintiffs.

The brief then went on to highlight seemingly contradictory arguments made by the state. In their request for a stay, Utah attorneys warned that allowing same-sex couples to marry now could cause significant harm to those couples down the line if a higher court later upholds the ban and revokes those marriages.

That logic makes no sense, countered the plaintiffs, because the state “cannot simultaneously concede that being stripped of one's marital status causes profound, irreparable harm and urge the Court to inflict that very injury on the married Respondents and other married same-sex couples."

Justice Sotomayor can now rule on whether to grant the stay herself, which would temporarily restore Utah’s 2004 voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, or refer the motion to the full court.

Utah became the 18th state to legalize marriage equality two weeks ago when District Judge Robert J. Shelby found that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the U.S. constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law. Since then, hundreds of gay couples have married across the state--one of the reddest in the nation, and home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which played an instrumental role in passing California’s short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8.

Many were shocked by the ruling, which capped off a year that doubled the number of states where gay couples could marry. One former candidate for Utah state Senate went so far as to fast in protest to the ruling, saying “some things in life are worth sacrificing one’s health and even life if necessary.”

The case now goes to a Denver-based court of appeals, which will hear arguments on an expedited basis in the coming weeks. Once the 10th circuit issues a final ruling, the case could wind up before the Supreme Court, and the Justices may be forced to answer the question of whether any ban on same-sex marriage falls in line with the U.S. constitution.

But before that happens, they’ll have to decide whether to allow same-sex marriages to continue in the meantime.