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Appeals court keeps recognition of same-sex marriages in Utah on hold

Appeals court keeps recognition of same-sex marriages in Utah on hold
Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City.
Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — More than 1,000 couples who rushed to wed after a judge overturned Utah’s gay marriage ban will have to keep waiting for many of the legal benefits of being married following an appeals court decision Thursday.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted Utah’s request to delay the implementation of a ruling that ordered state officials to start recognizing the marriages next week.

The Denver-based judges gave the four same-sex couples who sued Utah until next Thursday to file papers laying out why the order should be implemented. The court must next choose whether to lift or extend the temporary stay.

The 10th Circuit’s ruling came less than a day after Gov. Gary Herbert and state Attorney General Sean Reyes, both Republicans, announced late Wednesday they would appeal a federal judge’s May ruling. U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball had found the state’s decision to freeze benefits was harming the couples.

Kimball order, which was to take effect Monday, would have forced the state to start recognizing the marriages, allowing the couples to proceed with matters such as child custody, medical decisions and inheritance.

The couples married over 17 days in late December and early January after a judge struck down the state’s 2004 ban. The marriages stopped when the U.S. Supreme Court stayed that ruling, pending an appeal now before the 10th Circuit. That court has heard arguments, and a ruling is expected soon.

State officials said the marriages shouldn’t be recognized until everybody has guidance from higher courts on the constitutionality of Utah’s ban.

Herbert worked closely with Reyes in analyzing all options, deciding it was “important that clarity and finality are provided by the highest courts,” his spokesman Marty Carpenter said in a statement.

Reyes said in a statement Thursday that he recognized the burden on the families stuck in legal limbo. But he said the state believes it’s best to wait for higher courts to rule on the ban.

John Mejia, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Utah, said the couples who brought the lawsuit are disappointed in what they called the state’s “ill-advised” decision to appeal.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and resources, and it brings unnecessary uncertainty and disruption to the lives of these families,” Mejia said.

The state has spent about $300,000 paying three outside attorneys to defend its ban before the 10th Circuit, Utah attorney general spokeswoman Missy Larsen said. For this case, however, the office plans to continue using internal staff.

Mejia said he’s not discouraged by the stay granted. He said his organization will file a rebuttal before Thursday showing holes in the state’s logic.

The four couples who sued, including Marina Gomberg and Elenor Heyborne, said the state’s decision to freeze gay couples’ benefits violated their rights.

Gomberg said Thursday it’s painful to see how ardently Utah is defending its same-sex marriage ban. But she said she and Heyborne are trying to stay patient and optimistic, aware that cases move through the judicial system slowly.

“These are those bumps in the road. It’s not a road blocked,” Gomberg said. “It’s just a little bit of a stall.”

The ACLU believes the marriages are legal no matter what the 10th Circuit rules on the ban’s constitutionality. The appellate panel has heard arguments, and its ruling could come at any time.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in January that the federal government would honor the gay marriages in Utah, meaning couples can file federal taxes jointly, get Social Security benefits for spouses and request legal immigration status for partners, among other benefits.

In Utah, state agencies have been instructed to hold off on any new benefits for the couples until the courts resolve the issue regarding the ban. Agencies are not to revoke anything already issued, such as a driver’s license with a new name, but they are prohibited from approving any benefits.

The state tax commission announced, however, that newly married gay and lesbian couples can jointly file tax returns for 2013.

Coverage archives: Evans v. Utah.

Developing story, check back for updates.

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