Appeals court rules Utah's anti-gay marriage amendment violates Constitution

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit today affirmed the December 2013 decision from U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby in Kitchen v. Herbert that the amendment to the Utah Constitution barring marriage for same-sex couples violates the U.S. Constitution.

In a 2-1 decision authored by Judge Lucero on behalf of a three-judge panel, the court agreed with the low court’s ruling in which Shelby wrote that the ban denies "[Utah’s] 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."

“Today’s decision affirms what we all know to be true — the U.S. Constitution guarantees the basic civil rights of all Americans, not just some,” said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin. “Utah’s ban on marriage equality does nothing to strengthen or protect any marriage.  Instead, it singles out thousands of loving Utah families for unfair treatment simply because of who they are.  Our Constitution does not allow for such blatant discrimination.  We are incredibly grateful to the plaintiffs, their attorneys with Magleby & Greenwood, P.C and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, as well as Utah Unites for Marriage, for their tireless work making today’s historic victory possible.”

The appeals court ruling represents the broadest appellate court ruling in favor of a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.  The court applied strict scrutiny in striking down Utah’s marriage ban, providing the highest level of protection to same-sex couples.

Last December, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled that Utah’s ban on marriage equality is unconstitutional “because it denies the Plaintiffs their rights to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Over the weeks that followed more than 1,300 same-sex couples married in Utah before the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay pending final disposition of the appeal.

The Kitchen case in Utah was scheduled for appeal with a similar marriage case —  Bishop v. Smith out of Oklahoma. The appeals on both cases were heard by a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit, with Kitchen on April 10 and Bishop on April 17.

The state now has the option to request an en banc appeal before the full bench of the 10th Circuit. The court decides whether or not to grant that request. If denied, the defendants can also appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. They may also bypass an en banc session and appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Utah submitted a "friend of the court" brief in support of the challenge to the Utah law. The ACLU also has a lawsuit in Utah federal court seeking recognition of the marriages of same-sex couples who were wed before the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily halted marriages from taking place.

"This is a proud day for everybody in the state of Utah, and everybody across the country, who supports marriage equality," said John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah. "Though there is still much to do, the journey to ensuring the freedom to marry for all just got a huge boost with today's decision."

The 10th Circuit includes Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, the only state in the circuit that allows same-sex couples to marry. The precedent from the ruling applies to all of these states: its effect, however, has been stayed pending an expected application by Utah for Supreme Court review.

There are more than 70 court cases challenging discriminatory marriage bans across the country in 30 of the 31 states where such a ban exists, plus Puerto Rico.  Cases from nine other states are currently pending before federal appeals court.  The Supreme Court is under no obligation as to which case or cases – if any – it choses to hear on appeal. 

Since the Supreme Court’s historic marriage rulings last year not a single state marriage ban has survived a federal court challenge.

Same-sex couples can marry in 19 states and the District of Columbia.