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"It is only under exceptional circumstances that a court interferes with such action," Shelby said. "But the legal issues presented in this lawsuit do not depend on whether Utah’s laws were the result of its Legislature or a referendum, or whether the laws passed by the widest or smallest of margins."
The judge noted both parties drew arguments from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, which struck down DOMA but did not resolve the issue in the context of state laws banning same-sex marriage. Shelby said Justice Antonin Scalia predicted in his dissent that would come next as plaintiffs raised similar claims about harms due to state laws.
But Shelby said other decisions addressed the "tension" between a state’s right to regulate marriage and individual liberty and equal protection rights, among them 1967’s Loving v. Virginia that ended bans on interracial marriage. Such rulings held that individual rights take precedence over states’ rights when the two are in conflict, the judge said.
"Given the importance of marriage as a fundamental right and its relation to an individual’s rights to liberty, privacy, and association, the Supreme Court has not hesitated to invalidate state laws pertaining to marriage whenever such a law intrudes on an individual’s protected realm of liberty," Shelby said.
The state’s ban rendered the right to choose one’s marriage partner "as meaningless as if the state recognized the plaintiffs’ right to bear arms but not their right to buy bullets," the judge said.
Shelby took issue with the state’s argument that the plaintiffs "do not possess the qualifications" to enter a marriage relationship, saying there is "no dispute that the plaintiffs are able to form a committed relationship with one person to the exclusion of all others" and to raise children within that union if they desire.
Shelby said the state’s argument about the ties between marriage, procreation and optimal child-rearing were not compelling, nor was its assertion that the plaintiffs were seeking a new right.
"However persuasive the ability to procreate might be in the context of a particular religious perspective, it is not a defining characteristic of conjugal relationships from a legal and constitutional point of view," the judge said. "The state’s position demeans the dignity not just of same-sex couples, but of the many opposite sex couples who are unable to reproduce or who choose not to have children."
What same-sex couples seek is simply the same right "currently enjoyed by heterosexual individuals: the right to make a public commitment to form an exclusive relationship and create a family with a partner with whom the person shares an intimate and sustaining emotional bond," he said.
Shelby also gave a nod to Utah’s religious majority. The judge said that while the state did not present an argument based on religious freedom, his decision does not mandate any change for religious institutions; those who oppose such marriages may continue to do so, he said.
"If anything, the recognition of same-sex marriage expands religious freedom because some churches that have congregations in Utah desire to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies but are currently unable to do so," he said.
With the ruling, Utah becomes the 18th state where same-sex marriage has become legal through either court decisions, legislation or referendums. The District of Columbia also allows same-sex marriage.
The ACLU of Utah filed an amicus brief in the case and legal director John Mejia said Friday the organization was "thrilled" by the decision.
"We think that it was a discriminatory law that only served to deny loving and committed couples the protection and dignity of marriage," he said. "We congratulate the brave plaintiffs for making such a historic stand and their legal team for putting up such a great fight."
Cliff Rosky, University of Utah law professor and chairman of the board for Equality Utah, said he is optimistic Shelby’s ruling will survive appeal.
"We are thrilled that our federal courts have finally recognized that Utah’s Amendment 3 is unconstitutional. It demeans the dignity of gay relationships," Rosky said. "[The ruling] is cautious and thoughtful, based explicitly on the Supreme Court’s ruling from this summer. I fully expect it to be upheld on appeal.
"When that happens, people will soon enjoy the freedom to marry in Utah and all 50 states."
Utah Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis, who is gay, married his longtime partner Friday afternoon and called the decision reasonable. He noted the generational divide on the issue where young people, including younger Republicans, are more accepting of gay marriage than older people.
"What we need to do is a little hand holding with Utahns of a certain generation who really don’t understand that there is no need to feel threatened by gay people, that we are just like everybody else," he said.
And Dabakis said there needs to be a recognition that civil marriage and religious marriage are not necessarily the same thing.
"I don’t believe any religion should be coerced into performing a marriage they are not comfortable with and conversely no religion should be able to take away a civil right that should be available across the country," he said.
Tribune reporter Erin Alberty, Matt Canham, Peggy Fletcher Stack and Matt Piper contributed to this report.
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