Judge to decide if Utah will recognize same-sex marriages

Posted at 1:29 PM, Mar 12, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-13 06:33:23-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge will decide if Utah will recognize more than a thousand same-sex marriages performed here.

Lawyers for four couples suing the state argued that it should be forced to recognize the marriages performed here in the aftermath of another judge's ruling that declared Utah's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

"The fact is, these people are legally married," Joshua Block, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union argued in court.

The ACLU argued that the couples entered into marriages during a 17-day period, and those marriages ought to be recognized by the state of Utah. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the state's refusal to recognize the marriages is causing harm -- in health care directives, adoptions and child care decisions.

"Those marriages were legal at the time they took place," Block said.

Lawyers for the Utah Attorney General's Office urged the judge to hold off until an appeal of Amendment 3 is decided.

"The state is not currently trying to void the marriages that took place," assistant Utah Attorney General Joni Jones argued. "What we are saying is the recognition, the benefits are on hold."

Amendment 3, the constitutional amendment that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman and doesn't recognize anything else, was overturned last year by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby. He ruled it violated same-sex couples' rights to due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.

The state of Utah is appealing the ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court. Before the nation's top court granted a stay, an estimated 1,300 same-sex couples married in Utah.

U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball pressed the attorney general's office on those marriages, noting that ceremonies were performed.

"Does it mean nothing?" he asked.

"It doesn't mean rights were invested permanently," Jones replied.

It was an argument that Erik Strindberg, an attorney for the couples called "absolutely ridiculous" outside of court.

"The people who got married got married because they were in love, and the law at the time allowed them to get married," he said.

Judge Kimball asked how it was that Utah refused to recognize the marriages, but the state tax commission decided to allow married same-sex couples to file joint tax returns this year. Jones told him the marriage status was determined by the federal government -- which is recognizing them. If Amendment 3 is upheld, the couples would have to file amended returns, she said.

"It is an issue that needs to be fully addressed by the courts," Jones said of same-sex marriage in Utah. "Until that question is resolved, in the meantime, we're not going to recognize marriage. We're not taking away rights but we're not going to provide benefits to marriages."

Outside court, some of the couples suing the state said the state's decision has caused them harm. Matthew Barraza and Tony Milner said they were in the midst of an adoption for their 5-year-old son when the state's decision halted it.

"This is not a philosophical or esoteric legal argument," said Barraza. "This is our lives."

Judge Kimball said he would take the issue under advisement. He did not indicate when exactly a ruling would come down, but it is anticipated in the coming weeks.

Arguments in the appeal of Amendment 3 are set for April 10 at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

RELATED: More stories on Amendment 3 and same-sex marriage in Utah

RELATED: Court documents in the Amendment 3 appeal