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SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge today allowed gay marriage to continue in Utah, rejecting a request to put same-sex weddings on hold as the state appeals a decision that has sent couples flocking to county clerk offices for marriage licenses.
Judge Robert J. Shelby overturned Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage Friday, ruling the voter-approved measure is a violation of gay couples’ constitutional rights. The state then asked him to put a stop to the weddings, but he rejected the request.
Lawyers for the state said they would now ask a higher court to put gay marriage on hold.
About 125 gay couples obtained marriage licenses Friday in Salt Lake City, and Clerk Sherrie Swensen said her office issued a similar number early today. An estimated 100 licenses were issued in other counties, while some county clerks shut their doors as they awaited Shelby’s decision.
Couples began lining up Sunday night as they hoped to get licenses amid the uncertainty of the pending ruling.
Shelby’s decision to overturn Utah’s same-sex marriage ban has drawn attention given the state’s long-standing opposition to gay marriage and its position as headquarters for the Mormon church. The gay weddings in Salt Lake City have been taking place about 3 miles from church headquarters.
For now, a state considered one of the most conservative in the nation has joined the likes of California and New York to become the 18th state where same-sex couples can legally wed.
Many Utah residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons dominate the state’s legal and political circles.
The Mormon church was one of the leading forces behind California’s short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, which voters approved in 2008. The church said Friday it stands by its support for “traditional marriage,” and it hopes a higher court validates its belief that marriage is between a man and woman.
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In court today, Utah lawyer Philip repeated the words “chaotic situation” to describe what has been happening in Utah 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.
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.
Lawyers for the state waged a legal battle on several fronts as they sought to stop the same-sex weddings.
On Sunday, a federal appeals court rejected the state’s emergency request to stay the ruling, saying it couldn’t rule on a stay since Shelby had not yet acted on the motion before him. The court quickly rejected a second request from Utah today. The state plans to ask the court a third time to put the process on hold.
Adding to the chaos surrounding the situation 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 had an acting attorney general ever since, and Gov. Gary Herbert appointed a replacement today who will serve until a special election next year.
In Shelby’s 53-page ruling, he said the constitutional amendment that Utah voters approved violates gay and lesbian couples’ rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. Shelby said the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way.
The decision drew a swift and angry reaction from Herbert, who said he was disappointed in an “activist federal judge attempting to override the will of the people of Utah.” The state quickly took steps to appeal the ruling and halt the process, setting up today's hearing before Shelby.
The ruling has thrust Shelby into the national spotlight. He has been on the bench for less than two years, 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.