SALT LAKE CITY — Utah state lawyers have again turned to a Denver-based federal appeals court in their bid to put a stop to gay couples getting married, saying the state should not be required to abide by one judge's narrow view of a "new and fundamentally different definition of marriage."
About 700 gay couples have obtained wedding licenses since U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby on Friday declared Utah's gay marriage ban unconstitutional, but lawyers for the state are trying every legal avenue to halt the practice. Shelby on Monday denied their bid to temporarily stop gay marriage while the appeals process plays out, and they quickly went to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Utah is the 18th state where gay couples can wed or will soon be able to marry, and the sight of same-sex marriages occurring just a few miles from the headquarters of the Mormon church has provoked anger among the state's top leaders.
"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 a motion to the appeals court.
It is estimated that 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. The Mormon church was also one of the leading forces behind California's short-lived ban on same-sex marriage.
The legal wrangling over the topic will likely continue for months. The 10th Circuit could rule as soon as Tuesday on whether to temporarily halt the weddings, but the same court likely will hear the full appeal of the case several months from now.
People began lining up Sunday night at the Salt Lake County clerk's office in the hopes of getting licenses amid the uncertainty of the pending ruling by Shelby. Couples then got married once every few minutes in the lobby to the sound of string music from a violin duet.
They anxiously eyed their cellphones for news on Shelby's decision, and a loud cheer erupted once word spread that he wouldn't be blocking weddings. "We feel equal!" one man shouted; his partner called it "this magic happening out of the clear blue."
Adam Blatter said he was in a panic to get married Monday morning before a judge could halt the issuance of licenses. He and his partner, Joseph Chavez, were elated when it became clear their wait was worthwhile, and they were shocked that it was happening in a state long known as one of the most conservative in the country.
"We expected Utah to be the last place we could get married," Blatter said.
Even if the 10th Circuit grants a stay, the marriage licenses that already have been issued probably will remain valid, said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at Virginia's University of Richmond who has tracked legal battles for gay marriage. It's not entirely certain, however, because Utah's situation has unfolded differently than those of other states, and there's no direct precedent, he said.
Not all counties are issuing the licenses. In Utah County, one of the most conservative in the state, County Clerk Brian Thompson made a conscious decision to defy the judge's ruling and not grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He said he wants to see if the appeals court grants the stay first.
"I totally understand the position I'm in," he said, "but I have a responsibility as elected official to proceed with caution."
The appeals court already has rejected two previous requests from the state because of procedural issues, but it has not yet considered the case based on merits.
The Mormon church said Friday it stands by its support for "traditional marriage" and hopes a higher court validates its belief that marriage is between a man and woman.
In court Monday, Utah lawyer Philip Lott repeated the words "chaotic situation" to describe what has happened in the state since clerks started allowing gay weddings. He urged the judge to "take a more orderly approach than the current frenzy."
"Utah should be allowed to follow its democratically chosen definition of marriage," he said of the 2004 gay marriage ban.
In explaining his decision, Shelby said the state made basically the same arguments he had already rejected.
Adding to the chaos is the fact that Utah Attorney General John Swallow stepped down about a month ago amid a scandal involving allegations of bribery and offering businessmen protection in return for favors. The state has been relying on an acting attorney general, and Gov. Gary Herbert appointed a replacement Monday who will serve until a special election next year.
Peggy Tomsic, the lawyer for the same-sex couples who brought the case, called gay marriage the civil rights movement of this generation and said it was the new law of the land in Utah.
"The cloud of confusion that the state talks about is only their minds," she said.
Shelby said in Friday's ruling that the constitutional amendment that Utah voters approved violates gay and lesbian couples' rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. He said the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way.
Legal scholars speculate that the case could someday be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court if the justices decide they want to weigh in on whether state same-sex marriage bans violate the U.S. Constitution.
Tobias said that's a real possibility, but far from imminent. It will depend on what the appeals court decides and what happens with other court challenges in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Virginia, he said.