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Obama's marriage comments hailed by gay Utah couples

Published May 10, 2012 11:29 am

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The statement has symbolic power, but supporters and critics alike say its practical effect in states like Utah is nil.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In February, after being together for 11 years, Steve Verno and Ben Brown traveled from their Sandy home to wed in New York City, a lifetime commitment that Verno said was important to the couple.

"To be able to experience a marriage and say 'We are married.' To share that with the one you love and spend your life with … To have the same right that everyone else has to be married," said Verno in explaining the ceremony's significance. "A civil union, it's just not the same to me. I should have that right to be married."

Verno said he sees President Barack Obama's endorsement Wednesday of same-sex marriage — at least from his personal perspective — as an acknowledgment of relationships like his.

"The president's comments today are important in that he is supportive. I feel like things are changing in this country slowly," said Verno, who is planning a celebration of his marriage to Brown with their Utah friends later this month.

Obama's comments mark the first time a U.S. president has publicly endorsed marriage for same-sex couples, although he also said that he supports the states' ability to decide which marriages it will recognize.

In Utah, voters passed Amendment 3 in 2004, restricting marriage to a union between a man and a woman. Voters in North Carolina approved a similar ban Tuesday.

Opponents of same-sex marriage and civil unions say the president's stance shouldn't come as a surprise and likely won't change anything in the larger marriage debate.

"It's hardly a surprise. I think if anyone asked me yesterday what the president's real position on the issue is, I'd say he supports same-sex marriage," said William Duncan, a Brigham Young University professor and director of the Marriage Law Foundation, which opposes gay marriage.

Duncan said that the Obama administration has declined to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and has colluded with interest groups fighting in court to legalize same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court could rule on the legality of California's Proposition 8 by the end of the year.

Duncan said that big donors to Obama's campaign care deeply about the same-sex marriage issue and his comments alleviate pressure on the president.

Clifford Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah who has studied gay and lesbian issues, said the president's comments have symbolic weight, but because he emphasized states should decide for themselves how to define marriage, they don't carry any legal heft, particularly in Utah.

"Politically this has impact. Culturally it has tremendous impact. Imagine what it means to someone that the president of the United States believes they should be able to marry," said Rosky. "But from a practical matter in Utah, it has no impact."

State Rep. Brian Doughty, the only openly gay member of the Utah Legislature, said he was excited to see Obama take a stand on the issue and considers it a "big leap forward."

"[It means] President Obama realized our families have value to our society and we deserve equal rights," Doughty said. "My hope is that one day in my lifetime we can look back at Amendment 3 and all the other states that amended their constitutions to define marriage between one man and one woman to be shameful discrimination against gay and lesbian couples, and to have the president step out and say, 'I support gay and lesbian couples having the right to marriage' is just one step along the way."

James Humphreys, the political director of the Utah Log Cabin Republicans, got married in California in 2008, because he had a right to wed, even though "my own home state chooses to treat me like a second-class citizen." Humphreys said he spent the weekend calling aunts and uncles in North Carolina, pleading with them to vote against that state's ban on same-sex marriage.

"I'm still not going to vote for President Obama in the fall just because he supports same-sex marriage," Humphreys said. "This election is a financial election, not a social election. It's about jobs, jobs, jobs. While I applaud the president taking such a stance personally, I don't think it matters."

Utah's members of Congress outlined their opposition to gay marriage but took no shots at Obama, a restrained response in a normally combative political atmosphere.

"The president is certainly entitled to his own opinion, but I stand with Utah on this issue," said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, noting that the state Constitution defines marriage as purely heterosexual.

Lee and Obama do agree on one point: that states should decide the issue for themselves.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called marriage "a sacred union between a man and a woman" that should be preserved.

"I'm glad the president finally laid out his position to the American people, but changing the definition of marriage is not something I can support," he said.

Utah's GOP U.S. House members Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz said they disagreed with the president's position. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Utah Republicans' positions are similar to that of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a fellow Mormon, whose position is identical to that of his church.

"I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender and I don't favor civil unions if they're identical to marriage other than by name," Romney told a TV reporter. "My view is domestic partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights and the like are appropriate, but the others are not."

State Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said it was surprising to see Obama endorse same-sex marriage the day after North Carolina banned it. It is the 31st state to pass a constitutional amendment aimed at defending traditional marriage.

"In every state where the people have voted on the definition of marriage, there is majority support for marriage being defined as a union between a man and a woman," she said. gehrke@sltrib.comTwitter: @RobertGehrke

Matt Canham contributed to this report. —

Harry Reid's view

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the highest ranking elected official who is Mormon, issued the following statement on gay marriage:

"My personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman. But in a civil society, I believe that people should be able to marry whomever they want, and it's no business of mine if two men or two women want to get married. The idea that allowing two loving, committed people to marry would have any impact on my life, or on my family's life, always struck me as absurd.

"In talking with my children and grandchildren, it has become clear to me they take marriage equality as a given. I have no doubt that their view will carry the future.

"I handled a fair amount of domestic relations work when I was a practicing lawyer, and it was all governed by state law. I believe that is the proper place for this issue to be decided as well."

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., on the U.S. Senate Democrats website.