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Fighting To End Marriage Limbo

Liberty Reporter: The 2014 Winter Newsletter >>

“After 13 years together, we just want the security and peace of mind to know we can be there for each other in the hard times, ” - Plaintiff Stacia Ireland

ACLU demands Utah honor marriages of over 1,000 same-sex couples.

On January 21, 2014, the ACLU of Utah, along with the law firm of Strindberg & Scholnick LLC and the ACLU LGBT Project, brought a lawsuit to ensure that Utah honors the marriages of Utah same-sex couples. We brought the case, called Evans v. Utah, on behalf of four couples who legally married in Utah in the hours and days after a federal court struck down Utah’s ban on allowing same-sex couples to marry.  

On December 20, 2013, the federal district court in Kitchen v. Herbert enjoined Utah from enforcing its marriage bans. Immediately, a flood of same-sex couples converged on Utah’s county offices, finally able to express their love and commitment to each other through marriage. The flow of couples fortifying their families through the protection and responsibilities that come from being legally married continued at record pace- it is estimated that at least 1,000 married- up to the moment the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the district court’s ruling on January 6, 2014. 

That same day, Utah officials, acknowledging the importance of the issue to so many Utahn’s lives, promised careful deliberation about their next steps. On January 8, we wrote Attorney General Reyes to share our position that all of the marriages between same-sex couples in Utah are valid and may not be retroactively stripped of recognition. Among other things, we pointed to a California Supreme Court case addressing a very similar issue, called Strauss. In Strauss, the court ruled that Proposition 8, which declared that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California” did not retroactively invalidate the marriages of about 18,000 same-sex couples who had married in California before Proposition 8 passed. Rather, Strauss concluded that the marriages were all valid and conferred vested rights on the couples that California could not take away.

Later on January 8, however, Governor Herbert announced that the night before, he had emailed a directive ordering all state agencies to put the recognition of Utah marriage of same-sex couples “on hold” indefinitely.

Evans v. Utah seeks to force the state to lift this hold and immediately recognize all marriages of same sex couples married in Utah, such as the plaintiffs. While the stay may allow Utah to apply its marriage ban prospectively while the appeal in Kitchen is pending, it does not allow Utah to retroactively take away recognition from those already married. Moreover, stripping recognition from these marriages is contrary to Utah law and violates due process guarantees in the Utah and federal constitutions by compromising vested rights.

“These couples were legally married under Utah law and their unions must be treated the same as any other Utah marriage,” said John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah. “Regardless of what ultimately happens in the federal challenge to Utah’s marriage ban, the marriages that already occurred are valid and must be recognized now.”

“The state has reduced these unions to second-class marriages,” said Erik Strindberg of Strindberg & Scholnick. “It is imperative that these marriages be recognized now, so that these couples and their families can receive the protections given to all other legally married couples in this great state.”

“We’re back at square one, with no idea what’s going to happen to us if one of us is hospitalized,” says Stacia Ireland, a plaintiff in Evans v. Utah. Stacia and her spouse, JoNell Evans, noticed that JoNell received much better treatment from hospital staff caring for Stacia when Stacia was able to list JoNell as her spouse than when Stacia could not do so.  “After 13 years together, we just want the security and peace of mind to know we can be there for each other in the hard times,” Stacia concluded.

Another plaintiff couple, Matt Barrrza and Tony Milner, welcomed their son, Jesse, into their lives four years ago. Under Utah law, however, only Matt was able to legally adopt Jesse. Once they got married, Matt and Tony began adoption proceedings to make Tony Jesse’s second legal parent.  But the state’s “hold” on recognition of Matt and Tony’s marriage has thrown these proceedings up in the air.

“These couples and their families are suffering real immediate harm as long as their marriages are placed on hold,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “These marriages were validly entered into under Utah law, and the state is legally obligated to recognize their marriages now instead of placing these couples in limbo.”

The State recently removed the case to the federal U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. On February 4, 2014, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to force Utah to immediately recognize the marriages of same-sex couples married in Utah while the lawsuit winds its way through the litigation process.

We think that the heart of this the case is best summed up by the words of plaintiffs Marina Gomberg and Elenor Heyborne, both born and raised in Utah: “We want to be married to strengthen and protect our bond and commitment to one another, especially to be able to create a safe environment to raise a child (or maybe two). And we don’t want to have to leave Utah to do that. Our lives are here, our friends are here, our jobs are here, and we love this city. This is our home.  We love where we live. We want to raise a family here.”

Portions of this article are excerpted from the blog post “Stripped of Recognition” by ACLU attorney Joshua Block www.aclu.org/blog/lgbt-rights/stripped-recognition

More information about this case Evans v Utah, including the complaint filed in court, can be found at www.acluutah.org/legal-work/current-cases

We are grateful for permission to use the photos in this article taken by Patrick Jennings.