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Supreme Court stay complicates marriages of same-sex couples in Utah

State puts marriage recognition on hold, but says benefits obtained while same-sex marriage was legal should not be revoked
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
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SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Mathie proposed to his partner Tyler McCraley on Christmas. The next day, they joined the historic rush of same-sex couples getting marriage licenses in Utah.

But unlike many couples who solemnized their vows in impromptu ceremonies in the lobby of county clerks offices, Mathie and McCraley decided to wait to hold a ceremony so Mathie’s two children could be involved. They were planning the ceremony this weekend.

Kim Raff, APJ. Seth Anderson, left, and Michael Ferguson were one of the first couples married after a Utah judge declared the state's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional on Dec. 20.

Kim Raff, AP
J. Seth Anderson, left, and Michael Ferguson were one of the first couples married after a Utah judge declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional on Dec. 20.

But, they waited too long.

They are among dozens, maybe hundreds, of couples who missed out on their chance to be legally married in Utah.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Monday to bring a temporary halt to the marriages until the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers the long-term question of whether gay couples have a right to wed in Utah.

That means couples who did not solemnize the marriage before the ruling won’t be considered legally married, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said. A marriage license itself means nothing unless there is a ceremony with an officiator and two witnesses, she said.

“We were totally devastated,” McCraley said. “The biggest push for us to get married is to show the kids we were in this for the long haul. We definitely wanted them to be a part of it.”

County clerks have yet to tabulate how many same-sex couples who obtained licenses failed to make their unions official, but Megan Risbon of the Utah Pride Center estimates there be may a couple hundred people who fall into this category. More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples took home marriage licenses in the past two weeks.

The uncertainty surrounding the marriages is emblematic of the confusion resonating throughout Utah after a two-week rush on gay marriages was brought to a sudden halt. Questions remain about taxes, adoptions and health insurance for the newly-married couples.

“The legal landscape is changing by the minute,” said attorney Laura Milliken Gray, who represents many same-sex couples. “We’re trying to figure out exactly what it means in an area where everything is unprecedented.”

That landscape shifted a bit more on Tuesday when Gov. Gary Herbert issued guidance to state agencies instructing them not to recognize same-sex marriages that took place during the two weeks.

“State recognition of same-sex marital status is on hold until further notice,” the guidance says. “Please understand this position is not intended to comment on the legal status of those same-sex marriages – that is for the courts to decide.”

But, Herbert’s office also said benefits obtained by the newlyweds during the two weeks should not be revoked.

For instance, if a couple changed their names on a driver’s license already, that license should not be revoked, Herbert said. But, since all the laws revert back to before the federal judge’s Dec. 20 ruling, couples trying to change their name now on a driver’s license will not be allowed to do so, he said.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes issued his own statement, saying the validity of the 1,000-plus marriages performed is in question, and dependent on the decision of the appeals court.

The governor’s guidance drew rebukes from attorneys representing three same-sex couples who brought the lawsuit that led to the federal judge’s decision and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. They believe the marriages are valid, and that the couples should be able to get benefits bestowed upon any married couple.

“Regardless of how the state believes the 10th Circuit will ultimately rule, these couples are legally married and the state should treat them accordingly,” said attorney Peggy Tomsic in a statement.

McCraley, 32, said the last three weeks have triggered a roller coaster of emotions for him and other gay and lesbian couples. First was the joy and shock that a federal judge overturned Utah’s same-sex marriage ban. That was followed by the excitement of planning a wedding: renting tuxedos, getting flowers and having a friend open her house for the event.

Then came the disappointment Monday morning of finding out about the Supreme Court ruling and canceling their wedding ceremony in which 50 people were going to attend. Now, they don’t know when, or if, they’ll ever get married in Utah.

“We’re just waiting to see what happens,” McCraley said.

Phones at the Utah Pride Center have been ringing steadily the past two days with calls from couples stuck in the same situation as McCraley and Mathie, Risbon said.

Her organization and other gay marriage proponents made sure there were plenty of marriage officials at the county clerk offices in the days after the Dec. 20 ruling. Risbon said they were encouraging everyone to finish the process right then and there, in case a court granted the state’s request for a halt.

But, some people need ed or wanted more time, she said. Many were waiting to hold ceremonies until out-of-town family and friends could make it in. The family of one lesbian couple was driving from Colorado on Monday for a ceremony this week.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Risbon said. “These couples waited and now they just can’t.”

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