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Utah: Legal Limbo for Same-Sex Couples

By Kirk Rafdal  1/27/2014

Nearly 1,000 Utah couples face an uncertain future as the legal challenge to that state’s ban on same-sex marriages works its way through the federal courts.

Last month, a federal district judge struck down an amendment to Utah’s state constitution that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Passed by voter referendum in 2004, the amendment went into effect in 2005, and effectively bans recognition of same-sex marriages by the state.

In his opinion, Judge Robert J. Shelby held that the ban violates rights guaranteed by the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Shelby also ordered Utah immediately to cease enforcement of the ban, essentially clearing the way for same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses. Shelby denied a request by the state that he delay such action.

Within days of Shelby’s ruling, Utah officials asked the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to halt same-sex marriages in the state while the issue is being litigated. The state argued that it should be permitted to enforce its own laws until such time that the appellate courts rule otherwise. On Christmas Eve, the 10th Circuit ruled that Utah had failed to make a persuasive case and denied the state’s request.

A week later, Utah filed an emergency appeal with U.S Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is responsible for such requests in the 10th Circuit. Rather than act on her own, however, she referred the issue to the full court. On Jan. 6, 2014, without explaining its reasoning, the high court granted Utah’s motion and closed the three-week window in which same-sex couples could marry legally.

During that time, the state issued 950 marriage licenses, though it is unclear how many couples actually tied the knot. In the meantime, the rights of those who did marry remain murky. The state of Utah has said it will not recognize any same-sex marriages unless and until required to do so should opponents of the ban prevail. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the Utah marriages would be recognized for the purposes of certain federal rights, such as the ability to file a joint tax return, or avoid certain estate taxes.

Whatever the 10th Circuit decides, it likely will be the Supreme Court that ultimately settles the issue, and the impact may go well beyond Utah. If the Court does find the Utah ban unconstitutional, it likely would apply to similar bans in other states — essentially legalizing same-sex marriage on a national scale.

In the meantime, because family relations typically are governed by state law, same-sex married couples in Utah will be deprived, at least temporarily, of many substantial rights enjoyed by heterosexual unions. To remedy this, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a separate lawsuit on Jan. 21 in state court to compel Utah to recognize the same-sex marriages for the duration. The state has 20 days to respond.

Kirk Rafdal, J.D., is a staff writer for SHRM.

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