SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - A federal judge overturned Utah's ban on gay marriage, finding such laws "demean the dignity" of same-sex couples "for no rational reason," in violation of the 14th Amendment.
In a 53-page ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby said the Beehive State denied gay and lesbian couples the right to due process and equal protection, and that the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages.
In March this year six Utahans - Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity, Karen Archer and Kate Call, and Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge - sued Gov. Gary Herbert, former Attorney General John Swallow and Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen.
The couples wanted to be married in Utah, or had been legally married elsewhere.
Utah claimed it had the right to regulate marriage according to its citizens' judgment.
But Judge Shelby found: "The right to marry is intertwined with the rights to privacy and intimate association, and an individual's choices related to marriage are protected because they are integral to a person's dignity and autonomy."
"The court agrees with Utah that regulation of marriage has traditionally been the province of the states, and remains so today. But any regulation adopted by a state, whether related to marriage or any other interest, must comply with the Constitution of the United States. The issue the court must address in this case is therefore not who should define marriage, but the narrow question of whether Utah's current definition of marriage is permissible under the Constitution."
Shelby cited United States v. Windsor, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Defense of Marriage Act violated the Fifth Amendment.
Shelby wrote: "The Constitution's protection of the individual rights of gay and lesbian citizens is equally dispositive whether this protection requires a court to respect a state law, as in Windsor, or strike down a state law, as the plaintiffs ask the court to do here."
He added: "Given the importance of marriage as a fundamental right and its relation to an individual's rights to liberty, privacy, and association, the Supreme Court has not hesitated to invalidate state laws pertaining to marriage whenever such a law intrudes on an individual's protected realm of liberty. ...
"The Fourteenth Amendment protects the liberty rights of all citizens, and none of the state's arguments presents a compelling reason why the scope of that right should be greater for heterosexual individuals than it is for gay and lesbian individuals. If, as is clear from the Supreme Court cases discussing the right to marry, a heterosexual person's choices about intimate association and family life are protected from unreasonable government interference in the marital context, then a gay or lesbian person also enjoys these same protections."
The ruling makes Utah the 18th state to allow same-sex marriage, a major victory for gay rights activists in a state created by the conservative Mormon church.
"Applying the law as it is required to do, 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," Shelby wrote. "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. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional."
John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, celebrated the ruling, calling the plaintiff couples "brave."
"We're glad that the court has ruled against this discriminatory law," Mejia said in a statement. "This law only serves to deny loving and committed couples the protection and dignity that only comes with marriage. We congratulate the brave couples who brought this challenge and their legal team."
Joshua Block, ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project attorney, echoed Mejia's enthusiasm.
"Today's decision is just another step in the amazing show of progress that we've seen in the past few years," Block said. "We will continue to work until all couples across the country have the freedom to marry."
Hundreds of impromptu weddings were performed at county clerk offices throughout Utah after the ruling, including ceremonies performed by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Beck at the historic Salt Lake City and County Building.
A hearing on the state's request for a stay of the decision was scheduled for this morning (Monday).
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