The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against Utah for refusing to recognize the over 1,000 same-sex marriages that took place in the state from Dec. 20 to Jan. 8. Utah decided to put recognition of such marriages on hold while it appeals the state's legalization of same-sex marriage in federal court.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday by the ACLU and the private law firm of Strindberg & Scholnick in the state's 3rd District Court in West Jordan. Representing four same-sex couples, the lawsuit argues that the state's decision to not recognize the same-sex marriages performed from December to January puts same-sex couples in a state of "legal limbo" where they are unable to access important legal protections for themselves and their families.
"They've put a giant question mark over the lives of all these people that have married," said John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU in Utah, at a press conference. "We brought this lawsuit because these couples, and what we estimate are over 1,000 other same-sex couples, were legally married under Utah law," Mejia continued. "We ask the court to make clear and order that these unions must be treated the same as any other Utah marriage."
The plaintiffs being represented in this lawsuit are among the 1,300 same-sex couples who rushed to have their marriage licenses approved following a surprise ruling from District Judge Robert J. Shelby on Dec. 20, when he ruled the state's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Couples flocked to their local county clerk as the state of Utah sought a stay in the judge's ruling. Ultimately, the Supreme Court granted the stay in Shelby's ruling on Jan. 6 after two lower courts denied the request.
On Jan. 8, Utah announced that the same-sex marriages granted would be frozen while the state appeals Shelby's ruling in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. State agencies were ordered to stop processing any new benefits for same-sex couples, although they did eventually announce that same-sex married couples may file joint tax returns for their 2013 tax report.
In response to the recent ACLU lawsuit, state Governor Gary Herbert, who opposes same-sex marriage, said Tuesday that his office is simply upholding the law by freezing the same-sex marriages, arguing that because the Supreme Court granted him a stay, it is the requirement of the state to continue recognizing its ban on same-sex marriage. Herbert has been clear in saying that the same-sex marriages have not been voided, but rather frozen while the appeals court determines their validity.
"Governor Herbert has said throughout this process that his responsibility is to follow the law," said governor spokesman Marty Carpenter. "That is exactly what the administration is doing and we respect the rights of those who disagree to take their grievances before a judge."
Although the same-sex marriages are not being recognized on a state level, the Obama administration announced earlier in January that it will be recognizing the marriages on a federal level. The National Organization for Marriage has decried the administration's decision, arguing it completely went against any regard for the Constitution or rule of state law.
"It is the right of states to determine marriage, and the voters and legislature of Utah have done just that. Their right to do so is encoded in the U.S. Constitution, and was explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court this summer in the Windsor decision. But with this move, the Department of Justice under this Administration signals that it simply has no regard for the Constitution and the rule of law," Brian Brown, NOM president, said in a statement.
Utah's appeal to the legalization of same-sex marriage now makes its way through Denver's 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and critics contend that the ruling will likely be followed by an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.