’Church & State’ documentary tries to sort truth from myth in the story of how same-sex marriage became legal in Utah

(Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment) The plaintiffs in Kitchen v. Herbert, the legal case that made same-sex marriage legal in Utah, gather outside the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in 2014, in a scene from the documentary "Church & State." The plaintiffs are (from left): Laurie Wood, Kody Partridge, Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity.

Holly Tuckett remembers attending the wedding of Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity — the Salt Lake City entrepreneurs whose desire to get married helped legalize same-sex marriage in Utah — and a conversation she had at the reception.

It was with Kitchen’s grandmother, who recognized Tuckett as one of the people making a documentary about the legal case, Kitchen v. Herbert. “She said, ‘You’ve been following this. What made Derek want to sue the state of Utah?’” Tuckett said.

Tuckett immediately thought of Mark Lawrence, the firebrand LGBT activist who had sparked the legal battle. At that moment, she said, “I knew I had to tell Mark’s story.”

Lawrence had agitated to overturn Utah’s anti-gay-marriage Amendment 3 but has since nearly been forgotten, Tuckett said, in the public’s mind.

(Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment) A supporter of gay rights flies a rainbow flag over a rally for "traditional marriage" in the Utah Capitol in 2014 in a scene from the documentary "Church & State." The film chronicles the case of Kitchen v. Herbert, which legalized same-sex marriage in Utah.

“We’re not going to be popular in our own community,” Tuckett said of herself and co-director Kendall Wilcox and their documentary, “Church & State.” “We’re dispelling a myth” about how the court battle began.

“We had to pick a character to follow this journey through,” said James Huntsman, the film’s producer. “[Lawrence is] the most interesting character, and the most controversial one.”

(Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment) Mark Lawrence, a gay-rights activist whose group, Restore Our Humanity, initiated the lawsuit that made same-sex marriage legal in Utah, is one of the people profiled in the documentary "Church & State."

“Church & State” — having won awards at the American Documentary Film Festival in Santa Barbara, Calif., and the Nice International Filmmaker Festival in France — will debut for audiences in the state where it took place, with a weeklong run starting Friday at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City.

Lawrence was one of the founders, and the most outspoken voice, of the group Restore Our Humanity, formed in 2012 to think up a legal strategy to overturn Amendment 3. The amendment to Utah’s constitution was backed heavily by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2004. It enshrined into state law the idea that “marriage consists only of the legal union between a man and a woman” and denied legal recognition of any other domestic union.

“I wanted to bring gay marriage to Utah,” Lawrence says matter-of-factly in the film.

But launching a legal challenge to Amendment 3 meant taking on the LDS Church, which many in Utah’s LGBT community didn’t want to cross. It also meant going against national LGBT legal groups that had an incremental plan to challenge laws against same-sex marriage but didn’t see Utah as a viable battleground.

The film depicts Lawrence as a heartfelt advocate for LGBT rights, but often an abrasive one who irritated even his allies.

“He’s a great character. You love to hate him,” Tuckett said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve. He doesn’t see how his actions, or his interactions with others, are affecting people until it’s too late.”

Lawrence hired the law firm Magleby & Greenwood (now Magleby Cataxinos & Greenwood), and Peggy Tomsic became lead attorney on the case. They looked for couples willing to join in the case and found three: Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge, Karen Archer and Kate Call, and Kitchen and Sbeity.

(Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment) Peggy Tomsic, the attorney for the plaintiffs in Kitchen v. Herbert, the legal case that made same-sex marriage legal in Utah, talks to the press outside the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in 2014, in a scene from the documentary "Church & State."

Lawrence also wanted to have a documentary crew follow the case’s progress, and in April 2013 he approached Tuckett about taking on the job. Having just finished one project that had no financing, Tuckett declined. “I can’t do another movie I don’t get paid on,” she said at the time.

The case moved much faster than anyone anticipated. On Dec. 20, 2013, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled Amendment 3 unconstitutional. Up to then, several state courts had thrown out anti-gay-marriage laws, but this was the first time a federal judge had struck one down.

Scores of same-sex couples, including Wood and Partridge, rushed to the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office to get hitched — because the state of Utah had not filed the customary paperwork to seek a stay of the ruling pending appeal. It took the Attorney General’s Office until Jan. 6, 17 days later, to get a stay and put a stop to the marriage ceremonies, during which time several hundred gay and lesbian couples became legally married.

A couple of weeks later, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Tuckett ran into a filmmaker friend, Andrew James, who invited her to join the documentary project Lawrence had offered a year before.

“I said, ‘Yep, I’m in,’” Tuckett said. “I wasn’t going to bail on it twice.” (James would later drop out, to concentrate on his movie “Street Fighting Men,” about life in inner-city Detroit.)

(Photo courtesy Blue Fox Entertainment) Holly Tuckett, co-director and cinematographer of "Church & State," a documentary that chronicles the case of Kitchen v. Herbert, which made same-sex marriage legal in Utah.

(Photo courtesy Blue Fox Entertainment) Kendall Wilcox, co-director and writer of "Church & State," a documentary chronicling the case of Kitchen v. Herbert, which made same-sex marriage legal in Utah.

By then, the case was heading to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. National LGBT rights groups were sending in lawyers to back up Tomsic, and slowly Lawrence was being “pushed off to the side,” Tuckett said.

In the film, Lawrence calls the national LGBT organizations “professional homosexuals,” more interested in satisfying their donors than in attacking anti-gay institutions. He even argued with Tomsic about the input of one national group.

“We could see the plaintiffs were becoming tired of him,” Tuckett said. “I totally get it. The guy is a live wire. It could have put the case in jeopardy.”

Lawrence, contacted this week, said he had mixed feelings about the film. “I’m really glad the story is getting out there,” he said. “But I’m kind of uncomfortable with it. I feel kind of naked and exposed in the film.”

“I think he enjoys the limelight, even though he says he doesn’t,” Tuckett said.

Kitchen — now a Salt Lake City Council member and a Democratic candidate for the Utah Senate — said the plaintiffs in the case didn’t get too involved with the filmmakers.

“We really gave them free rein to do whatever they wanted,” Kitchen said. “We cast our trust to the wind with these folks.”

The 10th Circuit upheld Shelby’s ruling in Kitchen v. Herbert, and on Oct. 6, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the appellate court’s ruling to stand. It wasn’t until the following June, with the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, that the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

The footage for “Church & State” sat on the shelf for nearly a year because there was no funding to finish it. “I was worried the story would be lost,” Kitchen said.

Then, in 2016, Kitchen and Sbeity held a fundraiser at their restaurant, Laziz Kitchen, for Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, and Sbeity started talking to Huntsman.

“He said, ‘I’m a film producer,’ and Moudi said, ‘My husband wants to talk to you,’” Tuckett said.

“I ended up playing matchmaker between the filmmakers and the Huntsman group,” Kitchen said.

“They had a three-minute ‘sizzle’ reel,” Huntsman said. He liked what he saw and started looking for a filmmaker to take the 25 hours of footage and assemble a finished film. Huntsman was in talks with one filmmaker in Los Angeles, but ultimately decided, “If we’re going to pay this guy to finish the film, why not pay Kendall and Holly and have them finish it?”

Huntsman’s company, Blue Fox Entertainment, is also taking on distribution of “Church & State.” After a theatrical run in Salt Lake City, the plan is to debut the movie to on-demand streaming services, starting Aug. 10.

Huntsman thinks “Church & State” will surprise viewers. “People go into the film thinking it’s about X, but they come out seeing it’s about something else,” he said.

CHURCH & STATE<br>Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South.<br>When • Begins a one-week theatrical run on Friday, July 13.<br>Events • Panel discussions, featuring people involved in the film, will take place after the 7 p.m. screenings on Friday, July 13, and Wednesday, July 18. The Wednesday event is presented in conjunction with the Mormon Stories podcast.

Editor’s note: James Huntsman’s brother Paul is owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.