SALT LAKE CITY » They arrived with children in strollers and with bouquets of flowers, with co-workers and with friends – dozens of gay couples pouring into a government building just a few miles from the headquarters of the Mormon Church to do what many said they thought would never be possible: get a Utah marriage license.
A federal judge’s ruling Friday afternoon striking down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriages touched off what Mayor Ralph Becker called a "thrilling pandemonium." Hundreds of people filled the hallways and spilled out onto the sidewalks on Friday, hoping to marry before the county clerk’s offices closed for the weekend – and before an appeals court could stay the decision that made Utah, at least for the moment, the 18th state to allow same-sex marriages.
For gay couples, it was a seismic change in a state where 66 percent of voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage in 2004. The Mormon Church also played a pivotal role in supporting a 2008 measure that banned same-sex marriage in California.
"I can’t believe it," James Goodman said. He and his partner, Jeffrey Gomez, rushed from work to the clerk’s office on Friday after hearing about the ruling. Because they had no car, they hitched a ride from a boss and colleagues at Nordstrom, where Gomez works. Their rides also ended up being their witnesses.
"We knew it was just something we had to do," Gomez said. "This is my home, and I never thought I’d be able to get married here. I feel like a real person."
Salt Lake County officials issued more than 100 marriage licenses by the end of the day. But in legal documents filed late Friday, the state said those marriages might now fall under a "cloud of uncertainty" as it fights the decision by Judge Robert J. Shelby. Utah has asked that the judge’s decision be put on hold as it appeals. As of Saturday morning, no court had granted a stay.
Brandon Mark, a lawyer in Salt Lake City, said his partner, Weston Clark, called him shortly after the ruling to share the news. They raced down to the clerk’s office with their son, Xander, 3, joining a throng of news cameras and cheering couples.
"We wanted to wait until it was legal in our state," Mark said. "This is the state we live in and where we raise our family. We weren’t willing to settle for second best."
Even as gay couples celebrated the ruling, it drew condemnation from some religious leaders and elected officials in this deeply conservative state. Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican, assailed it as judicial activism that had upended the will of Utah voters.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement saying it hoped a higher court would overturn Shelby’s ruling. And The Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon Church, criticized the ruling for creating "a new class of same-gender applicants deemed ‘married’ under the Utah Constitution."
As the case now heads to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, gay couples said they had many questions about how state agencies would treat their marriages. Would the state allow them to file joint income-tax returns? Would it allow them to enroll their new spouses in state insurance programs?
In its legal filings, Utah said the new same-sex marriages could be "declared invalid" if its legal challenges succeeded. But Jim Dabakis, a gay Democratic state senator who married his longtime partner Friday, said he planned to call Utah’s health insurance office and enroll his partner, "whether the state likes it or not."
"We will expect every other right and benefit of other Utah marriages," he said. "I don’t see how the state takes that back."
Jack Healy, New York Times