Gay people are getting married in one of America’s most socially-conservative states, after a federal judge ruled Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Last week’s decision in Utah capped a string of legal and political victories for gay rights across the nation in 2013, with more battles expected in the year to come.
2013 saw a doubling to 18 of the number of U.S. states where same-sex marriage is legal, as well as a Supreme Court decision requiring the federal government to recognize gay unions. More than one-third of Americans now live in states allowing same-sex marriage, and polls continue to show an ever-growing majority of the public backs the right of gay people to wed.
Last week’s federal ruling in Utah was particularly striking, given that the state is home to the Mormon Church, which strongly disapproves of homosexuality. Seth Anderson and his partner were the first of hundreds of gay couples to marry in recent days.
Anderson says, “We are so happy, and I am so proud to be in Utah right now."
Utah Assistant Attorney General Philip Lott had a different reaction. He said, “The state is disappointed in the ruling.”
Utah’s governor issued a statement decrying that “an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah”. The state will appeal the ruling, and has repeatedly asked federal courts to halt same-sex unions while the legal battle goes forward. So far, those requests have been denied.
In striking down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage, the federal judge cited the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year.
New York University Law School professor Ari Waldman says,“The Supreme Court said that the federal government cannot discriminate against legally-married same-sex couples,” said .
He says, “However, the Supreme Court did not address the issue of whether a state could ban gays from the institution of marriage.”
Gay couples are suing for the right to marry in multiple states that prohibit such unions, while gay rights groups are mobilizing elsewhere to repeal state bans through the legislative process or at the ballot box. Groups opposed to same-sex marriage remain active and vocal, but seem to be losing political clout.
Even though the Supreme Court did not settle the question of same-sex marriage nationwide, its decision striking down one particular form of discrimination against gay people has strengthened legal arguments for ending state bans in places like Utah, according to Waldman.
“There is no doubt that the state bans on same-sex marriage are on thin ice [vulnerable]," said Waldman. "[Supreme Court] Justice [Anthony] Kennedy was pretty clear about the guarantee of equality for gay couples. With each decision, more and more people in this country are living in ‘marriage equality’ states, which means that more and more people are going to live in a world where gay couples are getting married."
For 2014, Waldman expects court decisions on same-sex marriage bans in as many as 10 additional states, plus one or two other states that may legalize gay unions through the democratic process. Ultimately, he expects the issue to return to the Supreme Court, but says the timing of such a decision is hard to predict.