A federal judge struck down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional on Friday, handing a major victory to gay rights activists in a conservative state where the Mormon church wields considerable influence.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby, ruling in a lawsuit brought by three gay couples, found that an amendment to the Utah Constitution defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman violated the rights of gay couples to due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.
"The state's current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in doing so, demean the dignity of these same sex couples for no rational reason. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional," Shelby said in a 53-page written decision.
The ruling barred the state from enforcing its ban and adds to growing momentum toward legalizing gay marriage across the nation. Officials in Salt Lake County immediately began issuing licenses to gay couples, some of whom quickly wed.
But a spokesman for the state's Attorney General's office said lawyers would seek an emergency stay of the judge's order while the office appealed to a higher court.
"I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah," said Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
"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," Herbert said.
'IT FEELS UNREAL'
The ruling, if it is not stayed by a higher court, would make Utah the 18th U.S. state to allow same-sex nuptials, adding to a growing number that have seen gay marriage legalized in recent months.
On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled to allow same-sex marriage across that state, ending legal ambiguity on the issue there. Last month, the governors of Hawaii and Illinois both signed bills to legalize same-sex weddings.
Shelby, in finding for the plaintiffs in the Utah case, rejected arguments by the state that it had the right to define marriage free of interference from the federal government.
The state had also argued that history and tradition have not recognized a right to marry a person of the same sex, and that Utah's law did not infringe on the right of the plaintiffs because they could still wed someone of the opposite sex.
"The court agrees with Utah that regulation of marriage has traditionally been the province of the states, and remains so today," Shelby wrote. But he said any state regulations must still comply with the U.S. Constitution.
The three couples who sued to overturn Utah's same-sex marriage ban all live in Utah. One couple, Karen Archer and Kate Call, were married in Iowa, which allows gay marriage, but want their union to be recognized in Utah.
The other two couples were denied marriage licenses by the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office, according to court papers.
"It feels unreal," plaintiff Moudi Sbeity, who sued along with partner Derek Kitchen, told the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper after Shelby's ruling. "I'm just very thrilled that Derek and I will be able to get married soon, if all goes well and the state doesn't appeal."
'EQUALITY UNDER THE LAW'
Couple J. Seth Anderson, 31, and Michael Ferguson, 32, said they were the first to wed, after getting a text message from an attorney friend about the ruling and rushing to the county government building in their jeans and sweatshirts.
"It means we have equality under the law," Ferguson said afterward, before his partner added: "For now."
Lawmakers in Utah, home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, had passed laws to prohibit gay marriage, and voters in 2004 approved an amendment to the state constitution restricting marriage to the union between a man and a woman.
The Mormon church, which has softened its stance on homosexuality in recent years, saying the origins of sexuality are not fully understood, was not a party to the lawsuit but wields considerable influence in the state.
"The Church has been consistent in its support of traditional marriage while teaching that all people should be treated with respect," a church spokesman said.
"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," he added.
The church has previously endorsed Utah laws to protect LGBT people from job and housing discrimination and in 2010 denounced gay bullying.
Polls have shown increasing public support for gay marriage, and civil rights groups have prevailed at a number of courthouses and in an increasing number of state legislatures. Ten years ago, no U.S. states permitted gay marriage.