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McEntee: Equality in marriage is coming — even to Utah

Published March 27, 2013 6:31 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

At last, it has come to this — and it's about time.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on California's Proposition 8, which essentially re-banned gay marriage after it was legal there for a few months in 2008. On Wednesday, the justices heard arguments on the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, a portion of which denies legally married same-sex couples a host of federal benefits available to spouses.

Both have been deemed unconstitutional in lower federal courts. Both have huge significance here in Utah, where same-sex marriage is forbidden by the state Constitution (as is polygamy) and where the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is vibrant, growing and increasingly acknowledged as an integral part of our society.

In fact, the Utah Pride Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief encouraging the justices to strike down all or part of both laws. Written by Salt Lake City attorneys Paul Burke and Brett Tolman, the brief argues that the court should recognize a federal right to marriage equality.

Burke, who listened to Wednesday's proceedings in the courthouse's lawyers' lounge, says he's "optimistic that DOMA is doomed."

Although the justices have various options, Burke says, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined four others in suggesting that, under the U.S. Constitution's 10th Amendment, it's up to the states — not the feds — to define marriage.

The New York Times reported that Kennedy appears ready to vote to strike down the part of DOMA that recognizes only married, opposite-sex couples for more than 1,000 federal laws and programs.

The federal government, Kennedy says, "should respect the historic commitment of marriage and questions of the rights of children to the states."

That would extend benefits to same-sex couples in nine states and the District of Columbia that allow such unions and to residents of other states that vote to recognize gay marriage

Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center and a former Air Force officer, is particularly concerned about same-sex military couples who enjoy the rights of all married couples in some states but would lose those if, for example, they had to transfer to Utah's Hill Air Force Base.

"The reciprocity issue has to be dealt with," Larabee says. "It's messy for every state."

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on both cases by June, but it's anyone's guess as to where the justices will come down.

However, as Kennedy notes, thousands of children in California, for example, live with same-sex parents and want their mothers or dads "to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case."

Well, there are lots of Utah kids living in the same kind of families. And while Utah isn't likely to repeal its own state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman any time soon, the force of a national movement toward marriage equality is becoming more and more powerful.

Politicians across the country (although few in Utah) are softening or even abandoning their anti-gay-marriage views. Sometimes it's about re-examined principles; sometimes it's about a son or a daughter. Occasionally, I suspect, it's about getting re-elected.

Still, the sentiments heard in the Supreme Court and in homes and cafes and churches nationwide are gaining traction. There will come a time when, as with racial and religious bias, Utahns and all Americans will have to accept our friends and neighbors as equals in life, love and, yes, marriage.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter: @Peg McEntee.