Utah’s battle over gay marriage is a sign of a larger shift

A fresh battle over same-sex marriage in conservative Utah, the heart of Mormon country, has offered gay-rights advocates hope that their effort has reached a national tipping point.

The judge who struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban refused to stay his own ruling Monday, beating back the third challenge in two days to his Friday ruling declaring the state’s ban unconstitutional. Utah is expected to take its appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, but in the meantime hundreds of same-sex couples continued to get married at Salt Lake City’s county courthouse.

Judge Robert J. Shelby’s ruling is particularly significant because it represents the first time a federal court has ruled on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans since the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June. The ruling will serve as a precedent for other states facing challenges to their bans, and it sets the stage for a Supreme Court decision that would apply to all 50 states.

“This case could decide the issue of same-sex marriage across the United States of America,” said Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah professor of law and expert on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender legal issues.

Also on Monday, in a far narrower ruling, a federal judge in Ohio declared that state’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, though the ruling only applied to death certificates for gay couples. Still, it is expected to be precedent-setting, leading to more lawsuits in Ohio challenging the ban.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.

Several observers believed that Shelby’s decision — clearing the way for same-sex marriages in one of the country’s most politically and religiously conservative states, one dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — represents a pivotal point for the country.

One of the strongest indicators of the broader cultural shift on the issue is the growing acceptance of legal recognition of gay unions among Mormons.

According to a recent poll by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, 54 percent of Mormons now favor civil unions for same-sex couples, and opposition to any legal recognition has dropped from 69 percent in 2004 — when state voters approved the ban — to 38 percent now.

The church is clear about its stance. “Marriage should be between a man and a woman,” it said plainly in a three-sentence statement following Friday’s ruling. But that statement reflected a change in tone that church leaders have been trying to strike since the church faced a storm of criticism for urging members to actively push and fund California’s Proposition 8, which briefly banned same-sex marriage there.

“Certainly they’ve stepped back from the public perspective on this,” says Ryan T. Cragun, a University of Tampa professor of sociology focusing on Mormonism. “[But] they’ve still been very opposed.”

The church, he said, still contributes to protecting traditional marriage in less-public ways, such as working with partner organizations.

But while its opposition to same-sex marriage may be unchanged, the Mormon Church’s statements on homosexuality are shifting, albeit in nuanced ways. On Mormonsandgays.com, a church Web site started a year ago outlining doctrine on homosexuality, the church states that being attracted to someone of the same sex is not a sin, though acting on it is still considered sinful.

“Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them,” the Web site reads. “With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

Thirty years ago, being homosexual was in itself grounds for excommunication, said Greg Prince, a national director of Affirmation, a support group for LGBT Mormons and their families and friends. Now, he said, there are gay Mormon missionaries who are open about their sexual orientation; so long as they remain celibate, the church does not care, he said.

Besides recognizing what a public relations disaster the church’s support of Proposition 8 was, Prince said, the attitudes of many Mormons have been shaped by scientific research showing people are born gay instead of choosing it. Many Mormons also were moved to question their attitudes by a well-publicized study of homeless Mormon teens in Salt Lake City, which showed a large number of them had been kicked out of their parents’ homes for being gay, he said.

“Though the percentage of Mormons in Utah who favor gay marriage lags behind the national percentage, it’s a moving target,” he said. “We certainly have changed the way we view homosexuality, and the way we view homosexuals in our church.”

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said more than 400 same-sex marriage licenses were issued Friday and Monday.

On Monday, hundreds of gay couples had flocked to county clerk offices around Utah seeking to get marriage licenses. In Salt Lake City, gay and lesbian couples began lining up Sunday night. More than a dozen clergy from different denominations set up tables in the lobby and performed on-the-spot weddings. Every two minutes or so, another couple left the building to the sound of jubilant cheers from well-wishers.

Among them were Kody Lee Partridge and Laurie Wood, Utah natives who were both raised as Mormons and graduated from Brigham Young University. The women were among three couples who were plaintiffs in the lawsuit Shelby decided on Friday, overturning Utah’s ban.

Wood recalled how she and Partridge applied for a marriage license in March and were rejected. The clerk was apologetic, Wood said, and suggested they hold on to their application a little while longer. After the judge’s ruling Friday, Wood said, the clerk recognized them in the courthouse and told them with a smile, “I guess you didn’t have to wait as long as you thought.” Wood and Partridge were married in the courthouse by an American Baptist minister who had heard about the ruling and rushed down hoping to officiate at someone’s wedding.

Partridge, who teaches high school English, said parents of her students gave the couple flowers and champagne, and many of her former students sent e-mails congratulating them.

“What a difference 10 years makes,” said Wood, 58. “Utah’s being exposed as a pretty great state. It’s so conservative. But it’s changing. It may have to be dragged into the 21st century, but it’s going to go there.”

“It’s a different state,” said Partridge, 47, who is descended from a prominent Mormon bishop.

The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University has been tracking views on gay marriage in Utah for a decade in opinion polls that show a dramatic shift in attitudes since then.

In 2004, the year Utah voters approved a measure defining marriage as between a man and a woman, 54 percent of all Utah residents said they disapproved of any legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship, including civil unions. Now, that opposition has dropped to 29 percent.

“Both nationally and even in Utah, there’s a generational difference,” said Kelly Patterson, a BYU political scientist who put the results on his blog, utahdatapoints.com. “It’s the younger members of both Republicans and the LDS faith who are driving a lot of this change.”

An estimated 47,000 to 63,000 residents of Utah are gay, lesbian or bisexual, according to a 2010 analysis of census data done by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA’s law school that studies gay issues and law. About 3,800 identified themselves in census surveys as unmarried partners. More than half live in or around Salt Lake City.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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