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Utah asks Supreme Court to block same-sex marriages

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Dec. 20, 2013: Natalie Dicou, left, and Nicole Christensen, right, are married by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, middle, in the lobby of the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office in Salt Lake City.AP

Utah is taking its battle against same-sex marriage to the nation's highest court.

The state officially filed an emergency appeal Tuesday with the Supreme Court to stop gay marriages, which became legal when a federal judge struck down the state's voter-approved ban earlier this month.

The state asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor to overturn court decisions to let the marriages go forward. Sotomayor handles emergency requests from Utah and other Rocky Mountain states. 

Sotomayor responded late Tuesday by asking for legal briefs from same-sex couples by Friday at noon. She can act by herself or get the rest of the court involved. 

Nearly two-thirds of Utah's 2.8 million residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons dominate the state's legal and political circles. U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby's Dec. 20 decision came as a shock to many in the state, which approved the ban on same-sex marriage in 2004.

Since the judge's decision, more than 900 gay couples in Utah have gotten marriage licenses. Shelby and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have already refused to halt weddings while the state appeals.

Peggy Tomsic, the lawyer for the same-sex couples who brought the case, calls gay marriage the civil rights movement of this generation.

Shelby's decision came late on a Friday afternoon and sent people rushing to a county clerk's office in Salt Lake City -- about 3 miles from the headquarters of the Mormon church -- for marriage licenses. The following Monday, 353 more gay and lesbian couples grabbed a license, some camping out overnight to get in line early the next morning.

After the 10th Circuit Court refused to halt the ruling, the few county clerks who had refused to issue licenses changed course. Officials say things have slowed down after a run on marriage licenses that started hours after Shelby's decision.

Since then, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert has directed state agencies to comply with Shelby's order, meaning gay couples are eligible for food stamps and welfare, among other benefits. The state Tax Commission said it was looking at changing tax returns to allow same-sex couples to file jointly, although it didn't immediately give assurances that will happen.

"Until the final word has been spoken by this Court or the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Utah's marriage laws, Utah should not be required to enforce Judge Shelby's view of a new and fundamentally different definition of marriage," the state said in motion papers already filed at the appeals court.

The Mormon church was on of the leading forces behind California's short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8.

The church says it stands by its support for "traditional marriage" and hopes a higher court validates its belief that marriage is between a man and woman.

Utah's case was not the only one brought to the Supreme Court just before the year's end.

Catholic organizations made a last-minute effort to get the court to block portions of President Obama's health care law that will force them to provide health insurance for students and employees that includes birth control.

Several organizations, including the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, the Catholic Diocese of Nashville, Catholic University and the Michigan Catholic Conference, asked justices to block the law until their arguments are heard. Parts of the Affordable Care Act go into effect on Wednesday.

On that day, "a regulatory mandate will expose numerous Catholic organizations to draconian fines unless they abandon their religious convictions and take actions that facilitate access to abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization for their employees and students," lawyer Noel J. Francisco said in appeals to Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan.

The law requires employers to provide insurance that covers a range of preventive care, free of charge, including contraception. The Catholic Church prohibits the use of contraceptives.

The Obama administration crafted a compromise, or accommodations, that attempted to create a buffer for religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social service groups that oppose birth control. The law requires insurers or the health plan's outside administrator to pay for birth control coverage and creates a way to reimburse them.

However, the Catholic advocates say the administration's plan does not go far enough. 

Federal judges have refused to issue a stay in these cases, and the appeals courts have not ruled on the request for an injunction.

The Associated Press contributed to this report