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Utah's Gay Marriage Ban Is Unconstitutional: Federal Judge

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

A federal judge struck down Utah's ban on gay marriage on Friday, ruling that the law violated constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby wrote in his opinion that Utah laws barring same-sex couples from marrying were in conflict with the fundamental right to marry and were not supported by any rational basis, reports The Salt Lake Tribune.

What does Judge Shelby's ruling mean for gay marriage in the Beehive State?

Amendment 3 Struck Down

Utah has a long history of prohibiting same-sex marriage in the predominantly Mormon state. As early as 1977, the Utah legislature passed amendments to marriage laws to explicitly make same-sex marriages null and void.

In 2004, the Utah placed Amendment 3 on the ballot, defining legal marriage as "only of the legal union between a man and a woman." Utah voters passed the amendment in November 2004, with a 66 percent majority.

Fast forward to Friday, when Judge Shelby, answering the civil rights complaints of three Utah gay couples, struck down these laws as unconstitutional. The Beehive State is now left in limbo, wondering whether gays are free to marry and whether the Utah government will appeal the decision.

It's similar to the situation in California in 2010, when a federal district court judge struck down California's Proposition 8. Although California government officials declined to appeal the ruling, opponents of gay marriage brought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- only to be told that they had no grounds to appeal.

Due Process, Equal Protection at Issue

Like in the Prop 8 decision, the federal district court judge in Utah based his ruling on the grounds that Amendment 3 denied gays and lesbians in Utah their 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection.

Concerning due process, the court found that marriage is a fundamental right, and to deny this fundamental right to the three couples wishing to marry -- based on nothing more than moral disapproval or tradition -- is unconstitutional.

The Utah laws also violate equal protection, even when the court applied the lowest level of constitutional scrutiny, called rational basis review. Under this test, the court failed to find any rational connection between the government's interests in procreation or child-raising and the gay marriage ban.

Judge Shelby ruled Friday that the state's laws were unconstitutional and could not be enforced; same-sex nuptials in some (but not all) Utah counties began shortly thereafter. Lawyers for the state are already working on an appeal, Reuters reports.

Editor's Note, December 23, 2013: This post was updated after Judge Shelby on Monday declined to block his ruling pending the appeals process.

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