Federal Judge Rules That Same-Sex Marriage Is Legal in Utah

Salt Lake County began issuing marriage licenses to jubilant same-sex couples on Friday, hours after a federal judge ruled that Utah’s amendment barring same-sex marriage violated the United States Constitution.

The decision, by Judge Robert J. Shelby of United States District Court, ordered Utah to immediately cease enforcement of its laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman. Gov. Gary R. Herbert condemned the decision and said he was trying to determine “the best course to defend traditional marriage within the borders of Utah.”

The attorney general said the state would request a stay of the order pending an appeal.

Dahnelle Burton-Lee, chief deputy clerk for Salt Lake County, said she was called back from vacation to deal with the crowds that showed up as news of the decision spread. “We’re pretty slammed right now,” she said, with some 15 couples waiting for their licenses. “And they keep walking in the door.”

She said that the district attorney had authorized her office to proceed “until or unless we’re told otherwise.”

Seth Anderson of Salt Lake City posted progress reports on Twitter, with pictures of his license and the wedding certificate as he and his partner, Michael Adam Ferguson, married.

“Me and my new husband!!” he wrote. “My polygamous Mormon great grandparents would be so proud!”

Utah, home of the Mormon Church, is one of the country’s more conservative and religious states. But if Judge Shelby’s ruling is upheld, it will become the 18th to permit same-sex marriage, along with the District of Columbia. The decision came one day after the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry, and follows a year of legal and legislative victories for gay rights advocates.

“The court holds that Utah’s prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law,” Judge Shelby, appointed by President Obama, wrote in a 53-page decision. “The state’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason.”

State courts in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and New Jersey, as well as New Mexico, have required recognition of same-sex marriage. But only once before, in California, has a federal court voided a state constitutional amendment barring such marriages that had been adopted by a popular vote.

Utah adopted its restrictive marriage amendment in 2004, after the Legislature passed laws that, together with the amendment, were declared unconstitutional on Friday.

More than 30 states have passed amendments or laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman. Buoyed by a United States Supreme Court decision in June that declared parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, advocates have filed dozens of lawsuits in both state and federal courtschallenging bans.

But the Supreme Court has not ruled on whether state amendments limiting marriage to a man and a woman are inherently unconstitutional.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposes same-sex marriage and said in a statement on Friday that it “has been consistent in its support of traditional marriage while teaching that all people should be treated with respect.”

“We continue to believe that voters in Utah did the right thing by providing clear direction in the State Constitution that marriage should be between a man and a woman,” the statement said, “and we are hopeful that this view will be validated by a higher court.”

John Schwartz contributed reporting.