I now pronounce you…
Utah on Friday was a big shock. Especially to me, since part of my childhood was spent in one of the most religiously conservative counties in that state…
One reason it’s such a shock to everyone is because the organization which has raised and (I believe illegally) coordinated the most money and resources toward fighting gay rights, particularly marriage equality, has its headquarters (and central Tabernacle) in Utah.
I realize that it’s a Federal Judge who offered the ruling. But while Judge Shelby was born in Wisconsin, he attended college in Utah, and most of his legal practice, including his time as a law clerk, has been in Utah. And while he was appointed by President Obama, a Republican senator from Utah is the person who recommended him for the post.
I know this isn’t the final word, the Governor and Attorney General have asked for a stay while they appeal the ruling. On the other hand, the Mayor of Salt Lake City was one of the officials performing weddings on Friday night. And among the couples who were married that first night was a state senator and his partner. Support for marriage equality has risen sharply in the state during the nine years since the ban was passed (though it is far from a majority).
However, there are several reasons why this is a very important milestone.
For one thing, judges, legislators, and even voters have been reluctant to strip couples of their marriage licenses once they are issued. And now, thanks to last year’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act extending federal benefits to marriages once those licenses are issued, there is a much stronger equal protection and due process argument to make if the licenses are revoked.
Then, as the Prop 8 trial in California showed, once you have some same sex couples receiving benefits, all of the couples who didn’t manage to get in during the window of opportunity have standing to argue a different equal protection argument if the ruling is overturned but the couples who married are allowed to keep their status.
Polling data in states that have had marriage equality has shown, again and again, that opposition to marriage equality sharply decreases in a state after marriages start happening, and people see that their local society has not collapsed. I know that the hard core haters are outraged by this, but more people are going to start thinking, “Okay, it isn’t a big disaster after all” and be less willing to take the haters’ histrionics seriously.
This is the first federal court in the 10th Circuit to find that no one can make a logical legal argument for limiting marriage to opposite sex couples. Last year the Supreme Court managed to avoid specifically either upholding or overruling the decisions made by District Judge Walker and the 9th Circuit Appeals Court, but that left the ruling standing. If the 10th Circuit overrules this, then you have two different federal circuits with opposing precedents, that makes it more likely the Supremes will weigh in.
If the 10th Circuit upholds it, that makes it more likely that similar lower court suits in the other 10th Circuit states (three of which have similar constitutional bans as Utah’s) could succeed.
Seeing this happen in Utah is a big deal for me because of my childhood experiences there. I often mention that my childhood including 10 different elementary schools in four different states. Utah was one of those states. And when I was in Fourth Grade, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prayer in schools was inherently coercive, the school I was attending in Utah instituted a daily morning prayer. That’s right, they didn’t have it until the Supreme Court said you weren’t supposed to.
The county we lived in had the highest proportion of members of the Mormon church of any in the state, at the time. The arrival of my sister and I doubled the number of non-Mormon children enrolled in the entire district. Our two-and-a-half years living there is what convinced a young, still very Southern Baptist me that separation of church and state was the Founding Father’s most brilliant idea. Back then, most of the evangelical denominations (including the one I was raised in) were very open about their belief that the Mormon church was a cult. And, as I learned living in that town, a lot of the residents there were equally convinced that non-Mormons weren’t Christian, either. It wasn’t everybody, by any means, but having nearly 99 percent of the population being regular attendees of the same church had a profound effect on every aspect of civic life.
My dad still lives about 20 miles from that town. Since even after Michael and I have been together for 16 years, Dad has never been able to bring himself to acknowledge Michael’s existence (To me, anyway; I have been told that after Michael and I moved in together, Dad pestered some of the other relatives who talk to us more often with questions about what they knew about “this new guy” and whether they thought I was safe with him.) I can only assume that when he hears about this ruling he’s going to have some very choice words about those “awful liberal judges.”Me, I’m still finding my eyes tearing up with joy for all the happy couples. Like these guys, who are reportedly the first couple to get a license on Friday.
What a wonderful Christmas present for them!