Utah’s Same-Sex Marriage Battle Could Change Legislation Across The Nation

UPDATE: On Wednesday, Utah Governor Gary Herbert announced that the state will not recognize over 1,300 same-sex marriages that happened over the last two weeks.  Unfortunately, this law will remain in effect until the Supreme Court reaches a decision.

For over 900 same-sex couples who wed after U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby declared the ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, a peculiar legal game has dampened their wedding bliss. Responding to a petition brought to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court justices have since ordered a halt to same-sex marriages in the state of Utah.

AP photo by Kim Raff

AP photo by Kim Raff

Within days of Judge Shelby’s December 20th ruling, the state of Utah made appeals to the federal judge and to the Tenth Circuit Court, which both denied the state’s request for a stay on same-sex marriages. When denied, the state brought its appeal to the Supreme Court, which has since suspended same-sex couples in Utah from wedding.

“A stay will eliminate the daily affront to the State and its citizens of being compelled by a single federal judge to solemnize marriages that strike at the heart of the State’s democratic process and of the conjugal view of marriage embraced by the vast majority of its people,” Monte Stewart, founder of the Marriage Law Foundation, insisted on behalf of the state.

Certainly this decision has disappointed, frustrated, and confused many Utahans who thought that Judge Shelby’s verdict provided them with a legal right previously denied. Additionally, although the Supreme Court’s stay on same-sex marriages in Utah currently prevents future marriages from taking place until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit resolves the petition, it also invalidates the marriage of couples wedded before the halt which was announced on Wednesday by Utah Governor Gary Herbert. This change may throw a wrench into a lot of LGBT folks’ hopes about marriage equality in the United States, but the Utah case (also known as Kitchen versus Herbert) actually offers the Supreme Court an opportunity to take a firm stance on the legality of same-sex marriage.

The Supreme Court struck down a part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) almost six months ago, an act that some have celebrated as a huge step towards legalizing gay marriage in the United States. While the Court’s decision definitely was significant, it only nullified Section Three of DOMA which limited federal benefits of marriage to heterosexual couples. Essentially, the repeal did not assert that same-sex couples should have the right to wed, but rather that if they are married they should have access to the same rights as heterosexual couples.

Image via CJ Online

Image via CJ Online

On the same day that the Supreme Court responded to DOMA, the Court chose not to respond to a case that brought California’s Prop 8 to attention. On June 26th, petitioners brought Prop 8 before the Supreme Court after lower courts had invalidated the law as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court decided that the petitioners did not have the legal standing to invoke the power of the federal court and thus dismissed the case. Instead of making a broader stance on the legality of same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court returned the issue back to its specific state — California (with respect to Prop 8).

The Utah case parallels the Prop 8 ordeal in the sense that in both situations a group of dissenters appealed to the federal court to reverse a legal verdict that supports same-sex marriage. (However, in the case of Utah, the State is appealing, unlike in the California case when petitioners appealed to the Court, and thus the state of Utah can invoke the federal power). In 2013, the Supreme Court skirted a moment to endorse a specific position on marriage equality — whether that position would have been for or against the legality of same-sex marriage. Given that the Supreme Court has ordered a halt on same-sex marriages in Utah and has sent the appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court, it appears that the Supreme Court is ready to assert a federal opinion on LGBT people’s right to marry, and not just LGBT people’s right to government benefits. Yes, in its actions the Supreme Court is telling lower courts to slow down the legalization of same-sex marriages, but it is also emphasizing that the Supreme Court must have a say in whether same-sex marriage can and should be legal nationwide. This halt in Utah is a monumental moment for the U.S. government to speak to the issue of marriage equality instead of speaking around it.

Although it is unfortunate that so many couples and families have been negatively impacted by the halt on same-sex marriages in Utah, this appeal grants the Supreme Court a chance to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriages. What began as a question of state sovereignty may result in a moment where the Supreme Court can assert a view that same-sex couples do have a right to wed; it may also prove that the movement for marriage equality has a long ways to go if the Court sides with the state of Utah. This issue is specific to Utah but not limited to the state because LGBT folks throughout the country may be affected by whatever resolution this piece of legislation reaches. The appeals process is by no means quick nor easy, but let’s not count the Utah verdict as a loss just yet.

feature image from todayonline.com

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Helen McDonald is a 20-something Black lesbian feminist living off of pizza, social justice and a lil snark. By day, she's a community educator, teaching young people about healthy relationships. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog sapphosistah.tumblr.com and is a contributing writer at ElixHer.com

Helen has written 40 articles for us.


  1. I find it quite disgusting that the will of a majority can be imposed on a minority, when it comes to human rights. All men and women should be, and must be, equal before the law. It’s times like these when I’m thankful that I live in Canada.

    • I totally agree with the first half of your comment. That being said, “I’m thankful I live in Canada” comes across as kind of smug and condescending. I’m sure you didn’t mean to sound that way, but it’s not like Canada is a perfect bastion of minority rights. Look at their track record with indigenous people (especially women), for one thing. I’m sure Canada is a lovely place to live, but if you made that comment on an article about a developing country it would probably sound like you weren’t checking your privilege.

      • You’re right, I didn’t intend to come across like that. What I meant to say was that I’m glad we’ve at least gotten that issue solved here in Canada. And I agree with your other points, that we are far from perfect here. Again I apologize for not wording my comments better.

    • Yeah, I’d venture to say the shit Canada’s pulling in terms of indigenous things is way worse than how America is treating marriage. Eh, I’m sure of it. Look, I love Canada, but to say it’s better than the US comes from a place of immense privilege, yo.

  2. I’m gonna be so nervous if/when the Supreme Court chooses to hear this case. I was a wreck in the days leading up to the DOMA decision – for this case I think I’ll have to take up 7am drinking when logging onto the SCOTUS blog.

  3. I am really frustrated by how this case has progressed so far, but I really hope that you’re right about this being a positive sign w/r/t the Supreme Court finally making a ruling either way. I hate how much time, effort and public money gets spent on defending some citizens’ ability to oppress the rights of others.

    • I feel really frustrated too, particular in reference to the money aspect. I just feel like it’s completely contradictory that the government should be able to spend public money taking rights away from people who paid into that money.

  4. This is utter bullshit. So disheartened that all those marriages are now void :( It’s disgusting to think that can be pursued “legally”.

  5. It’s kind of like the Mormons just realized they actually DON’T have as much control of the government as they think they do, and they’re freaking the fuck out. And they spent all that money to control the government, and it just didn’t work. That’s got to suck for them. Lol.

  6. I don’t think they would be trying so hard to turn the law back if it was the state with a lot of Mormons.

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