Monday, December 23, 2013

Gay marriage in Utah may be national tipping point

Excerpts of Utah's battle over gay marriage is a sign of a larger shift by Niraj Chokshi and Carol Morello, Washington Post
A fresh battle over same-sex marriage in conservative Utah, the heart of Mormon country, has offered gay-rights advocates hope that their effort has reached a national tipping point.

The judge who struck down the state's same-sex marriage ban refused to stay his own ruling Monday, beating back the third challenge in two days to his Friday ruling declaring the state's ban unconstitutional. Utah is expected to take its appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, but in the meantime hundreds of same-sex couples continued to get married at Salt Lake City's county courthouse.

Judge Robert J. Shelby's ruling is particularly significant because it represents the first time a federal court has ruled on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans since the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June. The ruling will serve as a precedent for other states facing challenges to their bans, and it sets the stage for a Supreme Court decision that would apply to all 50 states.

"This case could decide the issue of same-sex marriage across the United States of America," said Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah professor of law and expert on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender legal issues.

Several observers believed that Shelby's decision — clearing the way for same-sex marriages in one of the country's most politically and religiously conservative states, one dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — represents a pivotal point for the country.

One of the strongest indicators of the broader cultural shift on the issue is the growing acceptance of legal recognition of gay unions among Mormons.

According to a recent poll by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, 54 percent of Mormons now favor civil unions for same-sex couples, and opposition to any legal recognition has dropped from 69 percent in 2004 — when state voters approved the ban — to 38 percent now.

Thirty years ago, being homosexual was in itself grounds for excommunication, said Greg Prince, a national director of Affirmation, a support group for LGBT Mormons and their families and friends. Now, he said, there are gay Mormon missionaries who are open about their sexual orientation; so long as they remain celibate, the church does not care, he said.

Besides recognizing what a public relations disaster the church's support of Proposition 8 was, Prince said, the attitudes of many Mormons have been shaped by scientific research showing people are born gay instead of choosing it. Many Mormons also were moved to question their attitudes by a well-publicized study of homeless Mormon teens in Salt Lake City, which showed a large number of them had been kicked out of their parents' homes for being gay, he said.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said more than 400 same-sex marriage licenses were issued Friday and Monday.

The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University has been tracking views on gay marriage in Utah for a decade in opinion polls that show a dramatic shift in attitudes since then.

In 2004, the year Utah voters approved a measure defining marriage as between a man and a woman, 54 percent of all Utah residents said they disapproved of any legal recognition of a gay couple's relationship, including civil unions. Now, that opposition has dropped to 29 percent.

"Both nationally and even in Utah, there's a generational difference," said Kelly Patterson, a BYU political scientist who put the results on his blog, "It's the younger members of both Republicans and the LDS faith who are driving a lot of this change."

An estimated 47,000 to 63,000 residents of Utah are gay, lesbian or bisexual, according to a 2010 analysis of census data done by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA's law school that studies gay issues and law. About 3,800 identified themselves in census surveys as unmarried partners. More than half live in or around Salt Lake City.