Top of Utah same-sex married couples reeling from Herbert's edict

Jan 8 2014 - 7:01pm

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Recently wedded same-sex couples in the Top of Utah are experiencing a cascade of emotions and confusion in the wake of Gov. Gary Herbert's directive that state agencies cannot recognize their marriages.

On Dec. 20, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby overturned Utah's ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional. Then on Jan. 6, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Utah's request for a stay. During the days in between, county clerks statewide issued more than 1,300 marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

But Tuesday night, Herbert Chief of Staff Derek Miller notified cabinet members by email that Utah's recognition of these unions is "ON HOLD until further notice." 

"I half expected the stay, so it didn't feel as shocking to me as this does," said Ogden native Marina Gomberg. "I didn't think it could happen, so it is kind of a jolt today."

When news of Shelby's ruling broke on Dec. 20, Gomberg and Elenor Heyborne rushed down to the Salt Lake County clerk's office to fill out the necessary paperwork so they could legally tie the knot. In May 2009, they had pledged their love to each other in a commitment ceremony, and were eager to make their union legitimate. 

"I didn't realize the degree it weighed on me when we weren't married," Gomberg said. "I felt such a weight lifted. The biggest thing for us was that we could seriously consider having a child. Now that's been put on hold." 

Lonnie Lujan, 31, of Ogden, said its been an emotional time since he married fiance Jose Arche, 29, in Weber County.

"The past three weeks have been filled with excitement and happiness, and now disappointment and frustration," Lujan said. "We were legally married and recognized by the state of Utah, and now the state is telling me they don't want to recognize my marriage, and they are stripping me of the basic rights and protections that come with being married." 

He and Arche had even started talking about adoption.

"We just assumed that if the state did anything, it would prevent future marriages from taking place during the appeal," Lujan said. "We didn't think it would go back, retroactively, and not recognize legal marriages. It's shocking to me they went this far."

Layton resident Jennifer Rasmussen recently married her longtime partner Becky Dustin. 

"We were given a glimpse of equality, then it was snatched out from under us again," Rasmussen said, lamenting the loss of "thousands of rights that married couples get," including the ablity to make decisions if a spouse is hospitalized.

Her wish is that "the state could come to a decision based on the reality of equality rather than their perception of equality."

Dustin, 36, works for the state and had planned to add Rasmussen, 41, to her insurance policy. But that plan is now on hold.

"We will wait it out," Rasmussen said, relieved that at least their five children have coverage.

Ogden resident Dustin Lacy, 28, recently married Jesse Gutierrez in Weber County.

"My partner knows we are committed and love each other," Lacy said. "We will see this through, one way or another. It's disappointing we can't have the same legal recognition or rights that other people in heterosexual relationships have . . . but it's not a surprise."

Lacy acknowledged being concerned about the state's reaction to same-sex marriages because everything happened so fast in the wake of Shelby's ruling.

"It took Utah by storm, and the state was never on board," he said. "The decision didn't come from Utah voters or Utah legislators. It came from one judge."

Backlash against one federal judge being able to undo Utah's Amendment 3, which voters approved in 2004, came swiftly and the fate of the state's same-sex marriages now hangs in limbo, hinging on decisions that will eventually come forth from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. 

Last Friday, Weber State University announced it would extend insurance benefits to spouses of employees in same-sex marriages. But on Wednesday, it had to withdraw that offer.

"We will do our best to follow the law, which will not allow us to process additional requests for benefits from legally married same-sex couples at this time," said Weber State Public Relations Director Allison Barlow Hess. 

"We regret that several of our employees are caught in the middle of this rapidly developing issue," Hess said.

Adrienne Andrews, Weber State's special assistant to the president for diversity, compared the weighty matter to the incremental dismantling of segregation that occurred in the 1950s. 

"I am mindful that the road to such a significant decision is not made lightly," Andrews said. "However, I do not know how many steps will be required."

Prior to Shelby's pre-Christmas surprise, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in a 5-4 vote in July. Up to that point, DOMA had barred same-sex married couples from receiving hundreds of federal benefits.

"Navigating these waters may be difficult," Andrews said of the legal journey taking place, "but it is worth the time and effort as we support human rights."

Meanwhile, county clerks endeavor to uphold the law -- in its current iteration.

"We're breaking new ground here," said Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch, noting that his office issued an estimated 170 same-sex marriage licenses over the holidays and currently has a stack of about 30 on hold.

"It's about the licenses we received back but had not processed by the time the stay was granted," Hatch said. "We're in discussions with our attorney about what to do with those applications."

For those couples who are part of that stack, Hatch said he realizes it's a big deal. 

"We want to make the best, accurate and legal decision that does not expose the county to risk," Hatch said.

In Davis County, Clerk/Auditor Steve Rawlings said they're recording any marriages where the license was issued and the ceremony took place prior to the stay. About 160 same-sex marriages took place in Davis County, Rawlings said.

At 12:30 p.m. Friday in the Utah Capitol Rotunda, same-sex marriage and equality supporters plan to deliver more than 41,000 signatures to Herbert, part of a "Let Judge Shelby's Ruling Stand" petition effort hosted online at http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/let-it-stand-governor. A statement Wednesday said that about 75 percent of the signatures came from within Utah.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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