For Better or Worse, Utah Weighs in on Same-Sex Marriage
The U.S. Supreme Court is receiving briefs from all over the country as it prepares to take up same sex marriage next month, including Utah. The Court will hear arguments in two cases concerning the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. The Utah Pride Center plans to file an amicus brief to the nation’s highest court this week, arguing that laws that ban same sex marriage amount to discrimination. But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Utah’s Attorney General have filed their own briefs in defense of traditional marriage and states’ rights to decide.
Jackie Biskupski was Utah’s first openly gay state legislator, and she believes Utah has an important role to play in influencing the national discussion over same sex marriage. Speaking to a crowd of gay rights advocates in Salt Lake City earlier this month, Biskupskie recalls Utah’s influence in the passage of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative banning same sex marriage in California.
“As we all know, Prop 8 has moved the eyes of this country from California to Utah, and for good reason,” said Biskupski, “We have a due diligence as citizens of this state to make sure that we lead this country in the right direction, because we all know this issue really is coming from the state of Utah.”
The Executive Director of Marriage Equality USA Brian Silva also sees Utah as an important battleground. He came from New York to take part in the state’s demonstration for same-sex marriage.
“This is where I wanted to be. This is where I wanted to stand on the side love, and to support all the families in Utah that are trying to be treated equally under the law,” said Silva.
The Supreme Court hearing has given gay rights advocates in Utah hope where there wasn’t much before. Valerie Larabee is Executive Director of the Utah Pride Center; she came to the Center the same year that Utah passed a constitutional amendment making same-sex marriage illegal.
“When I came here in 2004, the current dialogue was that marriage was 20 plus years away, and I did the math, and knew what that meant for my life. So 9 years forward, to be actually waiting for the day that this conversation will be taking place at the Supreme Court is a dream come true,” said Larabee.
The Utah Pride Center is filing an amicus brief arguing that a law banning same sex marriage amounts to discrimination. Larabee says there’s a system of discrimination in Utah that impacts lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including the ban on marriage and adoption by same-sex couples, as well as prohibitions of young people forming gay-straight alliance clubs in public high schools.
“It’s felt that if the Supreme Court rules about marriage on a federal level, then state will not be able to maintain the discriminatory practices at the state level,” said Larabee.
But Utah’s new Attorney General John Swallow sees nothing unfair in Utah’s constitutional amendment.
“I don’t believe that this law unfairly discriminates,” said Swallow, “The people who pass these laws and the people who vote are entitled to set policy that they feel is in the best interest of the people they represent.”
Swallow has filed briefs to the Supreme Court in favor of California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
“We actually believe that the issue should be left to the states to decide, and Utah has decided by constitutional amendment that marriage should be limited to one man and one woman.”
Swallow admits that he does not represent the views of everyone in the state, but he says a clear majority - 66 percent - voted for a constitutional ban on same sex marriage.
“I understand as a person that that is of concern to some people. These issues are very energetic and very emotional and impact families, but I felt as the Attoney General, I should err on the side of supporting the state legislature and the voice of the people in passing that constitutional amendment,” said Swallow.
The LDS Church and the Marriage Law Foundation based in Utah have also filed briefs in defense of traditional marriage. While the Utah Pride Center represents a minority view in the state, Valerie Larabee says it’s just as important for the Supreme Court to hear their side.
“I am so excited to be able to take the voice of all of the people that live not only here, but in other red states that have similar circumstances, in one document to the Supreme Court, because if we didn’t do that, we would be so remiss. This may be the only chance in our lifetime to share our story,” said Larabee.
Just last week, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman announced his support of gay marriage in The American Conservative magazine. In the editorial, he called for conservatives to take the lead on the issue. Meanwhile the Obama administration has filed a brief calling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in late March.