The Other State in California's Gay-Marriage Tangle

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A car flies the gay-pride flag in protest past the Mormon Conference Center in Salt Lake City

The other state in California's rancorous legal tangle over marriage is Utah. The 2008 campaign that successfully got the voter initiative known as Proposition 8 passed — thereby overturning a California Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage — not only held huge interest in Utah but also, according to campaign disclosures, among members of the Salt Lake City–based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), which raised approximately $3.8 million to block gay marriage. However, on Aug. 4, when federal Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco overturned Prop 8 — and on Aug. 12, when he said he was prepared to lift the stay on same-sex marriages from resuming — the reactions from Utahans were far from monolithic.

The night of Walker's decision, approximately 600 Utahans bearing rainbow flags gathered at the state capitol building in Salt Lake City to honor the victory of same-sex-marriage advocates in California before marching around Temple Square, the headquarters of the LDS Church. "We do a lot of protests in Utah. Utah is a state that you have to fight tooth and nail for them to recognize you as a human being," says Eric Ethington of, who organized the march. "Thank goodness in this instance common decency and law triumphed over religious opinion." Ethington called Prop 8 a "travesty of justice" and said that Walker's decision left the gay community in Utah feeling both elated and validated as human beings.

The official Mormon reaction, of course, was predictable. On Aug. 4, the LDS church released a statement declaring that "The Church ... regrets today's decision." The statement went on to say that it believed that "marriage between a man and woman is the bedrock of society. We recognize that this decision represents only the opening of a vigorous debate in the courts over the rights of the people to define and protect this most fundamental institution — marriage." Although the Church lamented Walker's decision, it urged everyone to act with "respect and civility" toward individuals with differing opinions. After Prop 8 passed in November 2008, Mormons in California and the rest of the country received heated public attack for supporting the delegitimization of same-sex marriage.

That has not dampened conservative Utah support for the cause of Prop 8 — and hopes for its reinstatement on appeal. Bill Duncan, director of the Marriage Law Foundation, based in Lehi, Utah, says the Walker decision was a disappointing one, but not entirely surprising. "[The decision] is not entirely based in normal legal principals and of course that's a problem," says Duncan. Utah's Republican Senator Orrin Hatch criticized Walker's decision, saying, "One federal judge trumped 7 million voters by making up a right that is not in the Constitution. This is what happens when judges make up the Constitution as they go along."

Nevertheless, emotions ran high at the Utah Pride Center on the day of the decision. Approximately 15 staff and community members gathered around computer screens to hear the news. Some shed tears of joy when the news broke. Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center, says she was delighted for the families who were brave enough to put their names on the case and stand up for their constitutional rights. "The bravery and the hard work of many people in the state of California and beyond has forced the conversation of marriage equality to be a global conversation," says Larabee. "I should not be denied the right to marry because of my sexual orientation or gender identity or any other status that isn't accepted by the majority. It's very important to understand that the Constitution is a document that covers every person in the United States, not just those who are privileged."

However, in 2004, voters in Utah passed an amendment to the state constitution that narrowed the definition of marriage to be only "between a man and a woman." Although the gay and lesbian community in Utah has been unable to challenge the amendment, it has managed to obtain protections for gay and lesbian couples in the state. In 2008, Salt Lake City created a Mutual Commitment Registry, which essentially acts as a domestic-partner registry. Although the state currently lacks any protection for individuals being fired or evicted due to their sexual orientation or sexual identity, some cities have chosen to include these protections in employment policies. According to Equality Utah, a group that advocates for gay rights, Salt Lake City, Taylorsville and Salt Lake County have all integrated these protections into their policies. Equality Utah also endorses candidates for the state legislature.

Upon hearing that gay marriages in the Golden State could start taking place by the end of next week, Brandie Balken, the executive director of Equality Utah, said she and her organization were "thrilled that constitutional freedom has been restored to all residents" of California — vicarious pleasure given the situation in her own state.