Federal judge strikes down Utah's same-sex marriage ban

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Utah's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional, says a federal district court judge in a ruling released on Dec. 20.

The 53-page order from Judge Robert J. Shelby said Utah's law, passed by voters in 2004, violates gay and lesbian couples' rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. And the state of Utah, according to the judge, failed to provide a compelling argument that allowing same-sex marriages would negatively affect opposite-sex marriages. Utah's fears and speculations are not sufficient reason to bar gay marriage, he added.

"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," Shelby wrote. "Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional."

Three couples seeking marriage rights in Utah filed the suit.

"It feels unreal," Moudi Sbeity told the Salt Lake Tribune. He and his partner Derek L. Kitchen are plaintiffs in the case. "I’m just very thrilled that Derek and I will be able to get married soon, if all goes well and the state doesn’t appeal. We want a farmer’s market wedding because it’s where we spend a lot of time."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, Peggy A. Tomsic and James E. Magleby, released a statement saying that the ruling brings "marriage equality to Utah, not only for the plaintiffs, but all other same-sex couples residing in Utah who desire to marry or have their legal marriage from another state recognized in Utah.

"While the Utah decision only directly affects same-sex couples in Utah, it will provide legal precedent to support other plaintiffs’s constitutional challenges to similar state laws in the remaining states where there is marriage inequality."

The state is expected to appeal. However, the judge did not issue an immediate stay with his ruling so it was unclear how clerks would handle applications for marriage licenses from gay couples. At least one gay couple had received a marriage license in St. Lake City, according to LBGTQNation.

Same-sex marriage has been legalized in the District of Columbia and 17 states, most recently in New Mexico.

Lawsuits for marriage equality are pending in as many as 20 states, including suits filed by Lambda Legal and the ACLU.

After the Utah decision, ACLU of Utah legal director John Mejia said, "We’re glad that the court has ruled against this discriminatory law,. This law only serves to deny loving and committed couples the protection and dignity that only comes with marriage. We congratulate the brave couples who brought this challenge and their legal team."

Meanwhile, the Liberty Counsel, a legal defense group that handles a lot of right-wing cases, sounded a warning to its supporters.

“Americans are just now waking up to the fact that homosexual rights are trumping religious rights,” said LC founder Mat Staver. “As families are gathering together for Christmas, the kitchen table is abuzz about the 'Duck Dynasty' controversy, the deterioration of our cultural values and the impact this cultural deterioration is having on religious freedom."

He added, “The Supreme Court decision on the federal Defense of Marriage Act is opening the floodgates to same-sex marriage.People of faith and moral values are waking up to the impending threats homosexual rights and same-sex marriage poses to religious freedom. This issue will deeply divide America and could be the end of freedom or the beginning of a new revolution."