Marriage ruling surprises Utah

Samantha Christensen, left, and Elise Larsen apply for a marriage license Friday in the Salt Lake County clerk’s office in Salt Lake City. (Kim Raff ~ Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY -- A day after a judge's surprise ruling overturned Utah's same-sex marriage ban, at least one county clerk intended to open early Saturday to issue licenses.

About 40 minutes north of Salt Lake City, about 300 hundred people showed up at the Weber County clerk's office on Saturday afternoon but later were turned away without marriage licenses.

Clerk Ricky Hatch apologized and said county officials had told him opening for special circumstances may violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection. Hatch said he also was told the county's standard security requirements were not in place for a Saturday opening.

The confusion Saturday and reports of other crowds scrambling to find an open office illustrated how gay marriage caught many in Utah off guard.

On Friday, more than 100 couples rushed to wed in Salt Lake County after the ruling was released. State officials slammed the decision and moved to stop licenses from being issued.

The state has given notice it will appeal the ruling and has asked for an emergency stay to stop gay couples from getting marriage licenses.

It's unclear whether or when a judge would grant the stay. Legal experts say even if a stay is granted in the coming days, the licenses that have been issued will likely still be valid.

For now, a state considered as one of the most conservative in the nation has become the 18th state where same-sex couples can legally wed. Utah is home to the Mormon church -- one of the leading forces behind California's short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, which voters approved in 2008.

"For something like this to happen in Utah is mind-boggling," Nathan London said as he and his boyfriend planned their wedding. "I'm sure they're going to fight it tooth-and-nail."

The 28-year-old from Cottonwood Heights and 34-year-old Alan Britton were among the dozens of couples turned away in Salt Lake City on Friday even though the county clerk's office stayed open for an extra two hours.

London and Britton said they planned to spend the weekend finding wedding rings. London said they would return around 6 a.m. Monday to wait for a license and marry "while we still can."

Utah Gov. Gary Hebert, a Republican, said in a statement Saturday that the ruling "has created a chaotic situation" in the state. He urged Shelby to grant a motion to stay the decision until the state's appeal can be heard.

Acting Attorney General Brian Tarbet said his office would bring the stay motion to Shelby by Monday morning. If the judge doesn't immediately rule, state officials would also ask the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to grant the stay.

Shelby, a recent appointee by President Barack Obama said Utah's ban violated the constitutional rights of gay couples and ruled that Utah failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect other marriages in any way. GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch recommended Shelby for appointment in 2011.

Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at Virginia's University of Richmond who has tracked legal battles for gay marriage, said Saturday that Shelby's ruling was "fairly strong" and the judge seemed to indicate he didn't think the state had a good case.

Tobias guessed if an emergency stay is granted, it could come as early as Monday or Tuesday and stop the gay couples from getting licenses.

As the appeal plays out, he said a final decision on gay marriage in Utah is at least months down the road.

Clifford Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah and board chairman with Equality Utah, said that until there is a stay, if there is one, Utah is obligated to continue issuing licenses to same-sex couples.

"Any county clerk who refuses to do so is violating a federal court order, and could be held in contempt of court," Rosky wrote in an email late Friday.

If Shelby's decision is later reversed, the same-sex marriages that have already happened would no longer be valid, Rosky said.

As news of the ruling spread Friday, a surge of couples descended on the Salt Lake County clerk's office to secure marriage licenses, waiting in line by the dozens and getting married on the spot by the mayor and ministers. Couples and their loved ones broke out in tears and cheers as their ceremonies were completed.

In southwest Utah, two gay couples received marriage licenses from the Washington County clerk's office before it closed Friday, according to The Spectrum of St. George.

Local clerks in other areas waited to hear from county attorneys before issuing licenses.

Hatch said the Weber County attorney's office did not tell them until late Friday night that they could issue the license.

At the Utah County clerk's office in Provo, several same-sex couples were turned away on Friday.

Arlene Arnold, 60, said she and her partner of 20 years rushed over but were denied a license.

"I was infuriated," Arnold said Friday. "And thought, as I watched the young, heterosexual couples sitting there, I thought, `I how does it feel to have straight privilege?"'

Arnold still said it was "history in the making."

"I didn't think in my lifetime I would ever see same-sex marriage approved in Utah," she said.