Court grants Utah stay in gay marriage case

Thursday , June 05, 2014 - 5:47 PM

Gay Marriage Utah -2

FILE - In this April 26, 2014, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert addresses delegates during the...

By BRADY McCOMBS

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal appeals court has granted Utah’s request to delay the implementation of a ruling ordering state officials to recognize more than 1,000 gay marriages that were allowed immediately after the state’s same-sex marriage ban was overturned.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision Thursday afternoon, prolonging the uncertainty for the gay and lesbian couples who married in December.

The order was set to take effect Monday, based on a ruling in a May from a federal judge who said the state’s decision to freeze benefits was harming the couples.

Gov. Gary Herbert and state Attorney General Sean Reyes, both Republicans, filed an appeal of that ruling late Wednesday. They requested the stay Thursday.

The ACLU of Utah says it’s disappointed in the state’s decision to appeal.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

Utah has appealed a federal judge’s ruling ordering officials to recognize more than 1,000 gay marriages that were allowed immediately after the state’s same-sex marriage ban was overturned, prolonging the uncertainty for those couples.

The state filed the appeal late Wednesday with the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Thursday, it also asked the appellate court to further delay implementation beyond Monday of the ruling to recognize the marriages until the appeal is heard, court documents show.

The couples married over 17 days in late December and early January, after another federal judge overturned the state’s 2004 gay marriage ban. The marriages stopped when the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the ruling, pending an appeal now before the federal appeals court in Denver.

As it stands now, the state must begin granting benefits Monday to those gay couples, on issues such as child custody, medical decisions and inheritance. On May 19, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball said Utah’s decision to freeze benefits for gay couples put them in an unacceptable legal limbo, causing them harm each day it goes on.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and state Attorney General Sean Reyes, both Republicans, took 16 of the 21 days they were given by Kimball to mull their appeal.

Herbert worked closely with Reyes in analyzing all options, said his spokesman Marty Carpenter in a statement, deciding it was “important that clarity and finality are provided by the highest courts,” Carpenter said.

Reyes said in a statement Thursday that he recognized the burden on the families stuck in legal limbo, but said the state believes it’s best to wait for higher courts to rule on the ban. He said immediately recognizing the benefits would be “premature.”

John Mejia, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Utah, said the four gay couples who brought the lawsuit are disappointed in what they view as an “ill-advised” decision by the state.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and resources and it brings unnecessary uncertainty and disruption to the lives of these families,” Mejia said.

The state has spent about $300,000 paying three outside attorneys to defend its ban before the Denver appeals court, Utah Attorney General spokeswoman Missy Larsen said. For this case, however, the office plans to continue using internal staff.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in January on behalf of four couples, including Marina Gomberg and Elenor Heyborne, saying the state’s decision to freeze benefits for gay couples violated their rights.

Gomberg said Thursday it’s painful to see how ardently Utah is defending the same-sex marriage ban. But she said she and Heyborne are trying to stay patient and optimistic, aware that cases move through the judicial system slowly.

“These are those bumps in the road. It’s not a road blocked,” Gomberg said. “It’s just a little bit of a stall.”

The ACLU believes the marriages are legal no matter what the Denver-based appeals court rules on the constitutionality of the state’s gay marriage ban. The appellate panel has heard arguments, and its ruling could come at any time.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in January that the federal government would honor the gay marriages in Utah, meaning couples can file federal taxes jointly, get Social Security benefits for spouses and request legal immigration status for partners, among other benefits.

The state argued in court filings Thursday to the 10th Circuit that the same-sex couples did not earn vested rights in their marriages because they occurred when a valid law was suspended by a non-final court ruling. State attorneys contend that if the ban ultimately is upheld, the marriages will be void.

It’s unknown when the 10th Circuit will rule on the state’s request for a stay. The same court denied Utah’s request for a stay in December after a federal judge overturned the state ban.

The Supreme Court later granted the stay, leading Herbert to order state agencies in January to hold off on any new benefits for the couples until the courts resolve the issue regarding the ban.

Agencies were told not to revoke anything already issued, such as a driver’s license with a new name, but were prohibited from approving any benefits.

The state tax commission announced, however, that newly married gay and lesbian couples can jointly file tax returns for 2013.

Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs

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