Federal judge rejects stay on Utah gay marriages as state appeals move

Meanwhile, a judge in Ohio throws out part of that state’s ban on gay marriage

Natalie Dicou, left, and her partner, Nicole Christensen, wait to get married at the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office in Salt Lake City, Dec. 20, 2013.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

A federal judge on Monday said he will allow gay marriages in Utah to continue, denying a request from the state to halt same-sex weddings until the appeals process plays out.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled Friday that Utah's 2004 law banning gay marriage violates gay and lesbian couples' rights under the 14th Amendment.

Also on Monday, another U.S. District judge ruled that Ohio must recognize the death certificates of same-sex marriages from other states. Judge Timothy Black found that couples moving from state to state expected their marriage, and property rights entwined with it, to be respected wherever they went.

The two cases are the latest in a series of U.S. court victories for gay rights. Just last week, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled to allow same-sex marriage across that state, ending legal ambiguity that had produced a patchwork arrangement in which some counties permitted gay nuptials while others prohibited them.

In Utah, lawyers for the state wanted the ruling put on hold as they appeal the decision, which has put Utah in the national spotlight because of its long-standing opposition to gay marriage. 

On Sunday a federal appeals court rejected the state's emergency request to stay the ruling, saying it couldn't rule on a stay since Shelby hadn't acted on the motion before him.

After Shelby's ruling Friday afternoon, gay and lesbian couples rushed to the county clerk's office in Salt Lake City to get marriage licenses. More than 100 couples wed as others cheered them on in what became an impromptu celebration at an office building about three miles from the headquarters of the Mormon church, which is an influential institution in the state which opposes gay marriage. 

For now, a state considered one of the most conservative in the nation has joined the likes of California and New York to become the 18th where same-sex couples may legally wed. They may also marry in Washington, D.C.

Utah is home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was one of the leading forces behind California's short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, which voters approved in 2008. The church said Friday that it stands by its support for "traditional marriage" and that it hopes a higher court validates its belief that marriage is between a man and woman.

In Shelby's 53-page ruling, he said the constitutional amendment that Utah voters approved in 2004 violates gay and lesbian couples' rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. He said the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way.

The decision drew a swift and angry reaction from Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who said he was disappointed in an "activist federal judge attempting to override the will of the people of Utah." The state quickly took steps to appeal the ruling and halt the process, setting up Monday's hearing.

Clifford Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah, told Al Jazeera following Friday's ruling that this case could head to the Supreme Court and be the one that finally determines whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to get married.

"What's so important about this, is that this is the first judge that had to apply the Supreme Court's decision," on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) from earlier this year, he said. "It means everything for other states. If the ruling is upheld, then same sex couples would have the freedom to marry in all 50 states."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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