The message from more than 1,000 gays and lesbians and their supporters who crowded the state Capitol rotunda Friday to hand state officials two petitions asking them not to appeal a decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Utah was loud and clear: It’s about love and family.
“Gov. Herbert, you say you want to protect children, then start with ours,” said Megan Berrett, who cradled 4-month-old daughter Quinn with wife Candice Berrett.
“We want our daughter to have both her parents be legally responsible for her,” said Candice Berrett, who married Megan in 2012 in New York and were one of the first couples married in Utah last month.
Tim Wagner, a Salt Lake resident and community organizer, and Matt Jacobson of St. George, said they gathered more than 58,000 signatures on their two separate, online petitions. Eighty percent of those who signed are Utahns or have Utah connections, Wagner said.
“I care about love, just like the rest of you, that’s why I did this,” said Wagner. He launched his petition on Dec. 20, the same day U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby overturned Utah’s ban on gay marriage, after reading about Herbert’s reaction to the decision.
Matt Jacobson, who traveled to another state in August to marry his partner, also started an online petition after hearing about Shelby’s decision and the state’s response to it.
“Tell the governor there are way better things we can spend $2 million on than hate,” he told the crowd.
Troy Williams, a local radio host and gay activist, had dozens of couples who married before the stay gather on a staircase behind the speakers and compared their message to that of civil rights leaders of the past.
Among them: Molly Butterworth, 33, who is seven months pregnant. Butterworth said she’s worried that if the state doesn’t recognize their marriage, it could leave her unborn daughter with wife Davida Wegner, 34, vulnerable.
Only one of the girl’s mothers could be on the birth certificate, so the other could be prevented from making medical decisions at a hospital, for example, or run into problems keeping the family together if Butterworth died.
“Utah is all about families and recognizing our family, protecting our child would protect Utah values in a lot of ways,” Butterworth said.
The crowd also heard from Riley Hackford-Peer, a shaggy, red-headed sixth-grader who said he has wanted his moms to get married for a while.
“I was scared of being taken away from one of my moms,” he said. “Some people don’t believe I’m from a loving family because my moms are gay. They are wrong.”
Riley first asked his moms Ruth and Kim, who met 17 years ago, to drive to Iowa to marry when he learned it was legal there. Riley said his moms explained that their marriage still wouldn’t be legal in Utah and that they wanted to marry in their home state. And then came Shelby’s decision.
“On Dec. 20, it happened. I saw my moms get married in Utah,” Riley said, as his brother Casey stood by his side. “It felt like fireworks bursting in my heart.”
Many of those who turned out for the rally carried signs, with messages such as “Follow the golden rule. Let it stand” and “Our family, friends, employers and our federal government all honor this. Have some honor, too, Governor Herbert.”
Among elected officials who attended the rally: Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, who said she was “thrilled” by the turnout. Also on hand were Amy Wicks, an Ogden City councilwoman, and state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake.
The rally took place hours after the federal government announced it would recognize same-sex marriages that occurred before the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state’s request for a stay.
Chris Sonderegger, 50, said he’s glad the federal government will recognize his Dec. 23 marriage because he’s worried that if he died, his family would shut out his partner of 25 years, 47-year-old Jim Grow.
“I have a very, very conservative Mormon family, and there would be a very real chance they would come in and take everything,” he said.
Sue Geary, who married partner Michele Page on Dec. 20 in Utah after 11 years together, said Herbert has an opportunity to be a hero in historical moment. She applauded the federal recognition but said the situation is still confusing.
“We’re most concerned about second-parent adoption so our family is more secure,” said Geary, 64, who wants legal recognition as the parent of the 55-year-old Page’s adopted daughter and son. They also married in California.
“It’s either legal or it’s not,” she said.
Derek Kitchen, who with partner Moudi Sbeity are plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging Utah’s ban, said he believes public opinion has changed in the decade since 66 percent of Utahns who participated in the 2004 election approved a gay marriage ban.
“It was good for Utah when Judge Shelby struck down Amendment 3,” Kitchen said. “As a fan of small government, I’m sure you understand our frustration with the government meddling in our lives.”
Fighting the decision “is too expensive” and “hurts too many families,” he said.
Sbeity said that like Herbert, he loves “my family, but unlike you, Gary, I cannot exercise my constitutional rights with the family that I love.”
Billie Christiansen of Millcreek came to Friday’s rally to show support for “all those I love, to help get them the civil rights that they deserve.”
Christiansen said her son came out when he was 17, which led to many “difficult” conversations and eventually was a primary reason in her decision to leave The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I knew he was the most wonderful, generous person and that there couldn’t be anything wrong with him,” said Christiansen, who claims as “extra sons” many other young men whose families have been less accepting. “He has made my life absolutely beautiful.”
Pamela Johanson of Ogden came holding a sign saying, “This Mormon supports marriage equality.”
“I think everyone has the right to choose for themselves the path that makes them happy,” said Johanson, who said she’s had fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints both support and disagree with her, but she’s seen a shift in attitudes in the past two years.
“Who am I to tell people they can’t get married?” she said. “I was married in the temple, and my husband didn’t want to be married anymore after 19 years.”
Megan and Candice Berrett, both school teachers, said they plan on having more children. They want others to see “families can be like we are, and not to be scared of us or disgusted by us,” Candice Berrett said.
“Times are changing and public opinion is leaning in our favor, so give it a push,” Candice Berrett said.
LDS Church issues strong directive to lay leaders
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued its strongest statement yet on the same-sex marriage situation in Utah, reminding its lay leaders across the country that they may not perform marriages or allow them to take place on church property.
The two-page statement asked congregational leaders to share the message from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with members “in appropriate settings.”
The LDS Church quoted a passage from Genesis about marriage and reproduction, which it said illustrated that marriage between a man and a woman was instituted by God and “central to his plan for his children and for the well-being of society.”
“Changes in the civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established,” the statement said. “God expects us to uphold and keep his commandments regardless of divergent opinions or trends in society.”
It said the contentious situation calls for civility on both sides while the lawsuit proceeds through court.