SALT LAKE CITY – A federal judge said Monday he will allow gay marriage in Utah to continue, denying a request from the state to halt same-sex weddings until the appeals process plays out.
U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby’s decision came three days after he overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, ruling it is unconstitutional. Utah lawyers are expected to ask a higher court to put the process on hold.
The county clerk in Salt Lake City immediately began issuing licenses after Shelby’s ruling Friday, and hundreds more gay couples were lined up Monday to get married.
The ruling has drawn attention given Utah’s long-standing opposition to gay marriage and its position as headquarters for the Mormon church.
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 on Monday.
Following Shelby’s surprising ruling Friday afternoon, gay and lesbian couples rushed to a county clerk’s office in Salt Lake City to get marriage licenses. More than 100 couples wed as others cheered them on in what became an impromptu celebration at an office building about 3 miles from the headquarters of the Mormon church.
About 25 couples lined up outside the clerk’s office in Davis County on Monday morning. The first couple showed up around 6 a.m. and married immediately after receiving their license.
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. Legal experts have said that even if a judge put a halt to the weddings, the licenses that already have been issued likely will still be valid.
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.
In Shelby’s 53-page ruling, he said the constitutional amendment that Utah voters approved in 2004 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 Republican Gov. Gary 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 Monday’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.