The decision gives increased momentum to a legal cause that already has compiled an impressive record in the lower courts after the Supreme Court last year struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Since then, 16 federal and state judges have issued rulings siding with gay marriage advocates.
The latest of those rulings was in Indiana, where a federal judge threw out that state’s same-sex marriage ban Wednesday in a decision that immediately allows gay couples to wed. The Indiana and Utah rulings came just one day ahead of the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision striking down part of the federal anti-gay marriage law.
The Utah ruling was especially significant because it was the first appellate court to conclude that last year’s Supreme Court decision means states cannot deny gays the ability to marry.
In 2012, an appellate court struck down California’s gay marriage ban but said it was only ruling on that law, not the broader constitutional questions. There were no such caveats in Wednesday’s 65-page decision.
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said Utah’s legal victory was sweeter because of where it originated — a conservative, deeply religious state in the heart of the mountain West.
“What is so powerful here is that we have the first federal appellate court and … it’s a case coming out of Utah affirming in the strongest, clearest, boldest terms that the Constitution guarantees the freedom to marry and equal protection for all Americans and all means all, including gay couples,” he said.
Within hours of the Utah decision, the Boulder County, Colorado, clerk announced that she would issue marriage licenses to gay couples because Colorado’s gay marriage ban would be voided if the decision stands.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, said on its website that it maintains marriage should be between a man and a woman, but believes “all people should be treated with respect.”
In his dissent, Justice Paul J. Kelly Jr. said the 10th Circuit overstepped its authority and that states should be able to decide who can marry.
“We should resist the temptation to become philosopher-kings, imposing our views under the guise of the 14th Amendment,” Kelly wrote.
More than 1,000 same-sex couples in Utah wed in December after the initial ruling in the case, before the Supreme Court issued a stay. Along with the Utah case, the 10th Circuit panel considered a challenge to Oklahoma’s ban. It did not immediately rule in that case Wednesday.
“While judges can, by judicial fiat, declare same-sex ‘marriage’ legal, they will never be able to make it right,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “The courts, for all their power, can’t overturn natural law.”
Though the Utah and Oklahoma cases have been closely watched, it’s unclear if one of them will be the first to reach the Supreme Court. The high court could choose from cases moving through five other federal appellate courts and wouldn’t consider a case until next year at the earliest.
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