Gay marriage in Utah: The earth spins backwards

    Since Friday, hundreds of gay couples have gotten legally hitched…in the state of Utah. That’s a phantasmagorical event, roughly akin to saying “the earth is spinning backwards” or “the Eagles have won the Super Bowl” or “Miley Cyrus has joined a nunnery.”

    The best way to wrap your head around Utah is to list the other 17 states (plus the District of Columbia) where gay marriage is now legal: New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Washington, California, and Hawaii.

    Notice what they have in common? They’re all blue states, having voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections.

    Which makes Utah the first red state in history to practice marriage equality. A true Christmas gift.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Granted, Utah hasn’t taken this monumental step on its own – it was ordered to do so last Friday by a federal judge, who ruled that its straights-only proviso was unconstitutional – and that should not surprise us. Utah, after all, is one of the reddest states in the nation. Flaming scarlet, actually.

    It hasn’t had a Democratic House member since 1996. It hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 1984. It hasn’t had a Democratic senator since 1976. It hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. (Mitt Romney won it last year by 48 points.) Roughly two-thirds of its citizens are members of the Mormon faith, which strongly opposes gay marriage. And roughly-two thirds of its voters said yes in 2004 to a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

    But equal rights issues are not popularity contests, as federal judge Robert Shelby pointed out in his Friday ruling. He simply invoked the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection clause – no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws” – and reached the obvious conclusion that Utah was consigning gay couples to less than equal protection.

    Shelby ruled: “All citizens, regardless of their sexual identity, have a fundamental right to liberty, and this right protects an individual’s ability to marry, and the intimate choices a person makes about marriage and family.” Referring to the gay couples who sued to nix the state ban, Shelby wrote: “The plaintiffs’ desire to publicly declare their vows of commitment…is a testament to the strength of marriage in society – not a sign that, by opening its doors to all individuals, it is in danger of collapse.”

    The state of Utah had indeed told Shelby that straight marriage would be imperiled by gay marriage (which is hilarious, because the U.S. Census Bureau says that straights in Utah have one of the highest divorce rates in America), and naturally it will recycle that claim when it asks a federal appeals court to overturn Shelby. Meanwhile, hundreds of gay couples intent on exchanging legal vows continue to flood county courthouses and government buildings – much to the consternation of Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who whines that Shelby has unleashed “a lot of chaos.”

    And Herbert is assailing Shelby as an “activist federal judge” – the usual right-wing pejorative (“activist” is a knee-jerk synonym for “I hate the ruling”). Plus, some conservatives point out that Shelby was appointed to the federal bench by (gasp) President Obama, which supposedly outs Shelby as a social-engineering lefty.

    The truth is that Shelby –  who served as a combat engineer in Operation Desert Storm, who served eight years in the Utah Army National Guard, who started his law career clerking for a federal judge appointed by Ronald Reagan – was actually recommended for the bench by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. And seconded by Sen. Mike Lee, the tea-partying Republican, who said that Shelby would make “an outstanding judge.”

    The “outstanding judge,” citing the Constitution, has leveled the playing field in the most family-friendly state. According to the latest Census figures, Utah has the nation’s biggest families, and the most households headed by married couples. The reality is that Utah’s gays aspire to be as traditional as the prevailing culture. One newly-married gay woman said, “Most of us come from big families. Those values are instilled in us.”

    Yesterday, state officials asked Shelby to put the brakes on his equalty ruling until the appeals court has a chance to sort things out. Shelby said no; the state merely recycled the status-quo arguments that he had already rejected. Maybe Utah will win on appeal and sustain codified bigotry for awhile longer, but that won’t change the big picture. Ultimately, even in reddest America, there is no turning back.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal