SALT LAKE CITY » Elisa Noel rushed to the county clerk’s office with her partner immediately after learning that a federal judge overturned Utah’s ban on gay marriage. They waited in line for a wedding license and were married in an impromptu ceremony punctuated with Noel giving the officiant a high-five.
"I can’t believe this is Utah," Noel said moments after a ceremony that took place about 3 miles from the headquarters of the Mormon church.
Others had a similar reaction after a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby that declared Utah’s voter-approved ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. The recent appointee by President Barack Obama said the ban violates the constitutional rights of gay couples and ruled Utah failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way.
The ruling prompted a frenzy of activity by lawyers and gay couples. The Republican governor blasted the ruling as going against the will of the people. Gay couples rushed to the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office en masse to secure marriage licenses, waiting in line by the dozens and getting married on the spot by the mayor and ministers.
It was a jubilant affair as cheers broke out after ceremonies were completed. A gay bar in Salt Lake quickly made plans for a Friday night party to mark the event. Some made plans to march on the capitol Monday.
"I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah. I am working with my legal counsel and the acting attorney general to determine the best course to defend traditional marriage within the borders of Utah," Gov. Gary Herbert said.
Late Friday, the state filed both a notice of appeal of the ruling and a request for an emergency stay that would stop marriage licenses from being issued to same-sex couples. It’s unknown when the judge will make a decision on whether to grant the stay.
The ruling has thrust the judge into the national spotlight less than two years after Congress approved his nomination to the federal bench. Shelby was appointed by President Barack Obama after GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch recommended him in November 2011.
Shelby served in the Utah Army National Guard from 1988 to 1996 and was a combat engineer in Operation Desert Storm. He graduated from the University of Virginia law school in 1998 and clerked for the U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene in Utah, then spent about 12 years in private practice before he became a judge.
Many similar challenges to same-sex marriage bans are pending in other states, but the Utah case has been closely watched because of the state’s history of steadfast opposition to gay marriage as the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The church said in a statement Friday that it stands by its support for "traditional marriage."
"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, and we are hopeful that this view will be validated by a higher court," the church said.
Not all Mormons were disappointed. A group called Mormons for Equality applauded the ruling, saying it was particularly sweet coming in "the heartland of our faith."
The group has been among the leaders of growing movement among Mormons to push the church to teach that homosexuality isn’t a sin.
The Mormon church’s stance has softened considerably since it was one of the leading forces behind California’s short-lived same-sex-marriage ban, Proposition 8, in 2008. A church website launched this year encourages more compassion toward gays, and church leaders backed the Boy Scouts’ recent policy allowing gay youth.
The Utah ruling comes the same week New Mexico’s highest court legalized gay marriage after declaring it unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A new law passed in Hawaii last month now allows gay couples to marry there.
If the ruling stands, Utah would become the 18th state to allow gay marriages, said Jon Davidson, director of Lambda Legal, which pursues litigation on LGBT issues nationwide. That’s up from six before the U.S. Supreme Court last summer struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The District of Columbia also allows same-sex marriage.
Deputy Salt Lake County Clerk Dahnelle Burton-Lee said the district attorney authorized her office to begin issuing the licenses but she couldn’t immediately say how many had been issued. But it was clear from the line at the clerk’s office that was several dozen.
"The momentum we are seeing is unprecedented in any human rights struggle," Davidson said. "To have this fast a change in the law and in public opinion, is quite remarkable."
State Sen. Jim Dabakis, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, was one of the first to get married in Salt Lake City with his longtime partner, Stephen Justesen.
"Do you, Jim, take Steven, to be your lawfully wedded spouse?" the mayor asked.
But at the Utah County clerk’s office in Provo, same sex-couples were still denied marriage licenses.
Patsy Carter, 42, and her partner of eight years, 39-year-old Raylynn Marvel, said they went to the office immediately after hearing about the ruling but the clerk said they office was still reviewing the ruling and consulting with the county attorney.
Carter said the ruling was still a positive step and she believes Utah County, considered one of Utah’s most conservative, will eventually have to start granting the licenses.
"If my marriage licenses could say, ‘Provo, Utah,’ that’s probably the most epic contradiction ever," she said.
Utah’s lawsuit was brought by three gay and lesbian couples, including one that was legally married in Iowa and just wants that license recognized in Utah.
During a nearly four-hour hearing on the case earlier this month, attorneys for the state argued that Utah’s law promotes the state’s interest in "responsible procreation" and the "optimal mode of child-rearing." They also asserted it’s not the courts’ role to determine how a state defines marriage, and that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t give same-sex couples the universal right to marry.
In the ruling, Shelby wrote that the right to marry is a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution.
"These rights would be meaningless if the Constitution did not also prevent the government from interfering with the intensely personal choices an individual makes when that person decides to make a solemn commitment to another human being," Shelby wrote.
Follow Brady McCombs at twitter.com/BradyMcCombs. Associated Press writers Paul Foy and Michelle Price contributed to this report.