A federal judge overturned Utah's same-sex marriage ban Friday, ruling it unconstitutional in a conservative state that is home to a large Mormon population that opposes homosexuality. Gay couples rushed to marry soon thereafter while state officials prepared to appeal the ruling.
"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," Judge Robert J. Shelby, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, wrote in the order. "Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional."
Soon after the court order, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker led same-sex marriage ceremonies, including that of State Senator Jim Dabakis to his longtime partner Stephen Justesen, in an office building about three miles from the headquarters of the Mormon Church, according to The Associated Press.
Becker told Reuters he officiated at 33 ceremonies.
Deputy Salt Lake County Clerk Dahnelle Burton-Lee told the newswire the district attorney authorized her office to begin issuing licenses to gay couples, and that 124 marriage licenses had been issued by the end of the day.
The state plans to seek an emergency stay of the ruling, and then also appeal it in a higher court.
"It will probably take a little bit of time to get everything in place," Ryan Bruckman, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, was quoted as saying.
"I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah," said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. "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."
Byron Babione, senior counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith, said the ruling imposes a "shortsighted, novel view of marriage."
"The government's purpose for recognizing marriage is to bring together one man and one woman as husband and wife to be a father and a mother to any children their union may produce," Babione said in a statement. "The ruling in this case ignores that time-tested and rational understanding of marriage – affirmed by 66 percent of Utah voters – and replaces it with the recently conceived notion that marriage means special government recognition for close relationships. A court should not impose this shortsighted, novel view of marriage on the people of Utah. We encourage the state to appeal this decision."
Judge Shelby was appointed by President Barack Obama after Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch recommended him in 2011. In his 53-page ruling in Kitchen v. Herbert, he said the state could not show how same-sex marriages affect opposite-sex marriages. "In the absence of such evidence, the State's unsupported fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the State's refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens," he wrote.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement supporting traditional marriage. "We continue to believe that voters in Utah did the right thing by providing clear direction in the state constitution that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and we are hopeful that this view will be validated by a higher court," it said.
Utah lawmakers had passed laws banning gay marriage, and voters approved a 2004 amendment to the state constitution limiting marriage to the union between a man and a woman.
Utah would be the 18th U.S. state to allow same-sex marriage if the ruling is not stayed. New Mexico became the 17th such state Thursday after its Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on gay marriage.