A federal judge denied Monday the Utah attorney general’s request for a stay of his ruling allowing same-sex marriages, clearing the path for gay couples to marry in what may be the nation’s most socially conservative state.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby refused to place a hold on his decision despite arguments that the state was unprepared for the sudden ruling and that same-sex couples would be irreparably harmed if it were later overturned.
Utah Assistant Attorney General Philip Lott told the judge that the state plans to appeal the judge’s Friday decision, thus casting “a cloud of uncertainty over the same-sex marriages currently taking place,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
“Nobody wins if Utah’s marriage laws are changed back and forth,” said Mr. Lott at the Monday morning hearing in Salt Lake City. “The status quo should remain intact.”
Some county clerks had already begun issuing marriage licenses Friday for gay couples, while others were waiting to see if the judge would stay his ruling in anticipation of an appeal. Many couples raced to tie the knot in fear that the legal window would soon be closed.
The judge said Monday that the state’s arguments were essentially the same as those he rejected last week when he issued an opinion stating that the Utah’s constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
Mr. Shelby’s decision Friday came after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as between one man and one woman, but stopped short of striking down all state laws and constitutional restrictions on same-sex unions.
A federal appeals court in Denver rejected two requests by the Utah Attorney General’s office over the weekend for emergency stays.
The Deseret [Utah] News reported that hundreds of couples had lined up Monday morning at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office to obtain marriage licenses.
Within hours of Mr. Shelby’s ruling Friday, as many as 150 applications for marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples were issued at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office alone. Many couples elected to take their vows on the spot, according to the Deseret News.
In his argument Monday, Mr. Lott noted the irony of a federal court compelling Utah to change its definition of marriage, given that the federal government had once compelled Utah to define marriage as between one man and one woman in order to join the union in 1896.
Those living in the territory that became Utah recognized plural polygamous marriage in keeping with the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which at the time allowed the practice. The church disavowed polygamy in 1890.
The judge’s ruling Friday makes Utah the 18th state to permit same-sex marriage. On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
In Ohio, a federal judge appeared to clear the way for gay marriage by ordering authorities Monday to recognize such marriages on death certificates on the grounds that the state’s ban on same-sex unions is unconstitutional.
“Today, same-sex couples in Utah have renewed hope that they will soon be free to marry, and there is no legal or moral reason for the state to stand in their way,” said Charles Joughin in a statement Friday on the Human Rights Campaign blog.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday he was “very disappointed” with what he described as the judge’s activism.
“I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah,” said Mr. Herbert in a statement. “I am working with my legal counsel and the acting attorney general to determine the best course to defend traditional marriage within the borders of Utah.”
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.