WASHINGTON — The battle over same-sex marriage in conservative Utah, the heart of Mormon country, has offered gay-rights advocates hope that their effort has reached a national tipping point.
The judge who struck down the state's same-sex marriage ban refused to stay his own ruling Monday, beating back the third challenge in two days to his Friday ruling declaring the state's ban unconstitutional. Utah is expected to take its appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, but in the meantime hundreds of same-sex couples continued to get married at Salt Lake City's county courthouse.
Judge Robert J. Shelby's ruling is particularly significant because it represents the first time a federal court has ruled on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans since the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act in June. The ruling will serve as a precedent for other states facing challenges to their bans, and it sets the stage for a Supreme Court decision that would apply to all 50 states.
"This case could decide the issue of same-sex marriage across the United States,'' said Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah professor of law and expert on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender legal issues.
Massachusetts, seventeen other states, and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
Several observers believed that Shelby's decision — clearing the way for same-sex marriages in one of the country's most conservative states, one dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — represents a pivotal point for the country.
One of the strongest indicators of the broader cultural shift on the issue is the growing acceptance of legal recognition of gay unions among Mormons.
According to a recent poll by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, 54 percent of Mormons now favor civil unions for same-sex couples, and opposition to any legal recognition has dropped from 69 percent in 2004 — when state voters approved the ban — to 38 percent now.
The church is clear about its stance. "Marriage should be between a man and a woman," it said plainly in a three-sentence statement following Friday's ruling. But that statement reflected a change in tone that church leaders have been trying to strike since the church faced a storm of criticism for urging members to actively push and fund California's Proposition 8, which briefly banned same-sex marriage there.
"Certainly they've stepped back from the public perspective on this," says Ryan T. Cragun, a University of Tampa professor of sociology focusing on Mormonism. "[But] they've still been very opposed."
The church, he said, still contributes to protecting traditional marriage in less-public ways, such as working with partner organizations or filing supporting briefs in court cases.
But while its opposition to same-sex marriage may be unchanged, the Mormon Church's views on homosexuality are shifting, albeit in nuanced ways. On Mormonsandgays.com, a church website outlining doctrine on homosexuality, the church states that being attracted to someone of the same sex is not a sin, though acting on it is.
"Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them," the site reads. "With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God's children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters."
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said more than 400 same-sex marriage licenses were issued Friday and Monday. In Salt Lake City, gay and lesbian couples began lining up Sunday night. More than a dozen clergy from different denominations set up tables in the lobby and performed on-the-spot weddings. Every two minutes or so, another couple left the building to the sound of jubilant cheers from well-wishers.
Among them were Kody Lee Partridge and Laurie Wood, Utah natives who were both raised as Mormons and graduated from Brigham Young University. The women were among three couples who were plaintiffs in the lawsuit Shelby decided on Friday.
Wood recalled how she and Partridge applied for a marriage license in March and were rejected. The clerk was apologetic, Wood said, and suggested they hold on to their application. After the judge's ruling Friday, Wood said, the clerk recognized them in the courthouse and told them with a smile, "I guess you didn't have to wait as long as you thought."