Courting the Constitution: The road to marriage equality in Utah

by Jeffrey Dahdah, photos by Nick Carpenter

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In December of 2013, same-sex couples across Utah hastily threw on coats and boots to go to the county clerk’s office and receive what had been unattainable for so long: marriage licenses. Roughly 1,000 couples were married in the days following Federal Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. However, those marriages would hang in the balance of legitimacy throughout a 10-month court battle between three same-sex couples and the state of Utah.

The plaintiffs in the case were Moudi Sbeity, Derek Kitchen, Laurie Wood, Kody Partridge, Karen Archer and Kate Call. On March 25, 2013, the plaintiffs went to apply for a marriage license. When they were denied, they filed a lawsuit, but not before a state employee gave them an encouraging thought: “The woman who had to deny us our first requests said, ‘Hold on to those; you never know when you might be able to apply,’” Wood said.

Their journey from courthouse to courthouse was long and time-consuming as the case worked its way up through appeals and district courts only to be upheld in district court 10 just six months after Shelby’s ruling. “It’s taken us some time to adjust because it really is a full-time job,” Sbeity said in August. “It’s been such an exciting process as well because so much has happened in one year. We are just on the cusp of legalizing same-sex marriage for the whole country.”

Early in the morning on Oct. 6, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision on the legality of gay marriage. The justices decided not to decide. The news of the lack of ruling trickled down to the plaintiffs of Utah’s case in a manner fitting of the times. “We first heard through social media, we did not believe it until we heard from our attorneys,” Sbeity said. “So we just were not sure that that was the truth.”

The Supreme Court had five cases to choose from going into its fall session. The discussion and speculation leading up to the session focused on which of the cases the court would take. “We really want the Supreme Court to do something and take a case, and we really want it to be the best case,” Wood said in August, in anticipation of the court’s decision. “I have no imagination to think about what that even would be like.” Seemingly nobody imagined the Supreme Court would bring an abrupt halt to the cases by not taking any of the five. This decision, or lack of, upheld the five district court rulings across the country, including district 11 covering Utah. The total number of states to allow same-sex marriage rose from 19 to 30.

In Utah, the reaction was bittersweet for some. Brooke Lambert, the LGBTQA program coordinator for Utah State University students, said she had mixed feelings. “Had the Supreme Court taken up the case, then there would have been a blanket statement about marriage equality,” Lambert said. “But speaking just for Utah, that works for us and marriage equality being legal right away as opposed to waiting months and months for a ruling is a good thing.”

Utah spent $600,000 on fighting the suit before state amendment three, which defined marriage as a man and a woman in Utah, was ultimately appealed. “I am surprised about this and disappointed,” said Gov. Gary Herbert in a press conference about the decision. “I believe that the people deserve to have this hearing taking place at the Supreme Court level to determine what is a significant issue of our time.”

Herbert went on to say in his press conference that Utah would uphold the law. “This has been and will continue to be an emotional issue for many people,” Herbert said. “But let me encourage the people of Utah, regardless of your personal beliefs when it comes to the same-sex marriage issue, please treat each other with respect and kindness as we transition to this new law.”

Herbert’s response to the court’s lack of decision echoes the respect in Utah of the process leading up to it. The plaintiffs praised the peacefulness of the process in August while waiting to see the Supreme Court’s next move. “I think there has been a certain level of respect given by even those who disagree with the suit,” Partridge said. Wood echoed her fiance’s sentiments, “One of the things that I really like about this state as compared to some of the other things I’ve read and seen is it hasn’t turned at all ugly. I don’t think there is big riffs that are going to be hard to mend or anything. I think in a few years the next generation will just be like, ‘what was the big deal?’”

Lambert also thought the proceedings were peaceful in Utah. “In my opinion, that’s one of the great things about Utah: it’s fairly safe here,” she said. “Even if somebody doesn’t agree with you, they are not necessarily going to beat you up in the corner. I think that’s nice.”

As the finality of the rulings set in, so did the new reality. In more than half of the United States, same sex marriage was legal and, at least for Utah’s plaintiffs and their supporters, the end goal was reached. “When our attorney confirmed that the Supreme Court indeed dismissed all of the cases, there was a lot of mixed emotions,” Sbeity said. “One was just kind of happiness and elation because we finally have the freedom to marry in our home state. And the other was one of sadness, but not in a bad way, sadness in that our journey has an end; it’s like summer camp is over. There is this group of people that we contact and talk to and see every single day that we probably won’t see every single day anymore.”

For Wood and the rest of the plaintiffs it was important that their home state acknowledged their marriage. “We love Utah. It’s our home; we didn’t want to be married anywhere else,” Wood said. “We’re so happy that we were married in our state and our state is at some point going to recognize marriage.” Because of the legal action of Wood and the other plaintiffs, Utah entered the forefront of the marriage equality conversation — something Kitchen found poetic. “Historically, Utah has been very eager to stop same-sex marriage, not only in our state but nationwide. Think Prop. 8, for instance,” he said. Proposition 8 was an amendment to California’s constitution in 2008 banning same-sex marriage. Many Utahns supported it.

For Kitchen, the issue is simple: “To me, a relationship is a relationship. We deal with all of the same kinds of struggles and triumphs and joys that every other couple has. There was this disconnect with how I viewed myself and how [the opposition] was viewing me and arguing my life. There were a lot of hard things to hear.”

Regardless of the process to arrive at marriage equality and its future, supporters in Utah are, for the most part, happy and the state is ready to move forward. “As far as my students have gone,” Lambert said, “the students I see here and the students I’ve seen on Facebook, it’s a very positive response. Everybody’s pretty excited.” The figures in the case, the plaintiffs, also can celebrate with their states, their communities and their families before the newness of the decision fades. “We’ve received a lot of emails, texts and calls saying, ‘Today I became a legal parent to my child’ or ‘I got married and I can now be on my wife’s insurance.’ All of these benefits come with marriage,” Sbeity said.

Kitchen and Sbeity now have a wedding to plan, but that won’t be the end of their activism. Sbeity said he still hopes to be of help when he can to members of the LGBT community. “We are planning on getting married this next spring,” he said. “We hope that we can continue to use our voice to help the LGBT community and our family, too, within our home state.”

 

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