WASHINGTON — Utah took its fight against gay marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, asking the high court to suspend same-sex unions that became legal when a judge struck down the state’s voter-approved ban.
The heavily Mormon state wants the marriages to stop while it appeals a judge’s decision, which said banning gay couples from marrying violates their right to equal treatment under the law.
In papers filed Tuesday with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the state asked her to overturn court decisions to let the marriages go forward. Sotomayor handles emergency requests from Utah and other Rocky Mountain states. She can act by herself or get the rest of the court involved.
Nearly two-thirds of Utah’s 2.8 million residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons dominate the state’s legal and political circles. U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby’s decision on Dec. 20 came as a shock to many in the state, which approved the ban on same-sex marriage in 2004.
Since the judge’s decision, more than 900 gay couples in Utah have gotten marriage licenses. Shelby and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have already refused to halt weddings while the state appeals.
Peggy Tomsic, the lawyer for the same-sex couples who brought the case, calls gay marriage the civil rights movement of this generation.
Shelby’s decision came late on a Friday afternoon and sent people rushing to a county clerk’s office in Salt Lake City — about 3 miles from the headquarters of the Mormon church — for marriage licenses. The following Monday, 353 more gay and lesbian couples grabbed a license, some camping out overnight to get in line early the next morning.
After the 10th Circuit Court refused to halt the ruling, the few county clerks who had refused to issue licenses changed course. Officials say things have slowed down after a run on marriage licenses that started hours after Shelby’s decision.
Since then, Gov. Gary Herbert has directed state agencies to comply with Shelby’s order, meaning gay couples are eligible for food stamps and welfare, among other benefits. The state Tax Commission said it was looking at changing tax returns to allow same-sex couples to file jointly, although it didn’t immediately give assurances that will happen.
“Until the final word has been spoken by this Court or the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Utah’s marriage laws, Utah should not be required to enforce Judge Shelby’s view of a new and fundamentally different definition of marriage,” the state said in motion papers already filed at the appeals court.
The Mormon church was one of the leading forces behind California’s short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8.
The church says it stands by its support for “traditional marriage” and hopes a higher court validates its belief that marriage is between a man and woman.