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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 10 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 02
Utah governor puts marriage rights 'on hold' - ACLU to sue state
Section One
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Utah governor puts marriage rights 'on hold' - ACLU to sue state

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

In a dramatic reversal of his previous position, Utah Governor Gary Herbert has instructed state officials not to recognize Gay and Lesbian marriages performed in Utah after a federal judge struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

Two days later, on January 9, the ACLU of Utah announced it would sue the state of Utah on behalf of couples whose marriages had seemingly been invalidated by the governor's action.

'We have a great pool and we are working through that, and plan to bring litigation that will protect all marriages, whether the couples are named plaintiffs or not,' the ACLU said in a statement.

The civil rights group said it has called for plaintiffs to come forward and was met with 'overwhelming interest' from couples who were married before the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the federal court ruling striking down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage.

After Federal District Judge Robert Shelby's December 20 ruling, hundreds of couples rushed to obtain marriage licenses and get married. Herbert initially instructed state agencies to comply with Shelby's ruling and treat the couples as legally married.

At the time, Utah lacked an Attorney General, the elected AG having resigned in a corruption scandal. Lawyers from his office neglected to ask Shelby to stay - or postpone the effect of - his ruling pending appeal.

Once Sean Reyes was appointed to fill the post on December 23, he immediately asked the U.S. Supreme court for a stay, which was granted on January 6. On January 7, Reyes issued a formal opinion saying that the stay meant that state laws banning same-sex marriage were back in effect.

Herbert then issued new instructions to state agencies, based on the AG's finding.

'This stay effectively puts a hold on the decision of the district court, which found state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage in Utah to be unconstitutional,' Herbert's chief of staff, Derek Miller, wrote in the letter.

'Based on counsel from the Attorney General's office regarding the Supreme Court decision, state recognition of same-sex marital status is ON HOLD until further notice,' the letter continued.

Couples who have been married and are in the process of getting their documents in order and obtaining state benefits 'will stay exactly in that position,' in a sense frozen in place, till the Tenth Circuit Court rules on the state's appeal of Shelby's ruling, the governor's office said.

In a letter to Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, ACLU-Utah legal director John Mejia called on the state to recognize the same-sex marriages performed before the stay.

'In short, these marriages are valid and have vested the married couples with rights that the state and federal governments must recognize,' Mejia said.

'Utah and the federal government should thus accord same-sex couples who married in Utah all of the same protections and obligations that married couples of the opposite sex receive. When these couples married, they immediately obtained all of the same protections and obligations enjoyed by all of the other married couples in Utah.'

Some 1,200 couples are estimated to have married between December 20 and January 6.

Peggy A. Tomsic, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiff same-sex couples in the case decided by Judge Shelby, said the governor's new order harms the interests of her clients and other same-sex couples.

'This unprecedented and disappointing action harms not only my clients, but hundreds of other same-sex couples who also were legally married, and whose families have been needlessly destabilized and stripped of basic legal protection,' she wrote in a statement.

'By taking this unwarranted action, the State of Utah has discounted the lives of thousands of Utah citizens who live, work, and raise their families in Utah and pay Utah and federal taxes like all other Utah citizens. Regardless of how the State believes the Tenth Circuit will ultimately rule, these couples are legally married, and the State should treat them accordingly.'

HRC has called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to look into Utah's action, and to grant federal recognition to couples married in Utah.

'Even though the governor's office has now made a political decision to cut off this recognition, it continues to insist that it makes no pronouncement about the validity of these unions,' HRC president Chad Griffin wrote in a letter to Holder. 'There is simply no reason for the United States government not to extend federal recognition to these more than 1,300 couples.'

Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson told BuzzFeed that the Justice Department is looking into the matter.

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