SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge struck down Utah's same-sex marriage ban Friday in a decision that marks a drastic shift toward gay marriage in a conservative state where the Mormon church has long been against it.
The decision set off an immediate frenzy, as the clerk in the state's most populous county began issuing marriage licenses to dozens of gay couples while state officials took steps to appeal the ruling and halt the process. Cheers erupted as Salt Lake City's mayor led one of the state's first gay wedding ceremonies in an office building about 3 miles from the Mormon church headquarters.
Deputy Salt Lake County clerk Dahnelle Burton-Lee said the district attorney authorized her office to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples, but she couldn't immediately say how many had been issued.
Hours earlier, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby issued a 53-page ruling saying the constitutional amendment Utah voters approved in 2004 violates gay and lesbian couples' rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. Judge Shelby said the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way. "In the absence of such evidence, the state's unsupported fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the state's refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens," the judge wrote.
The decision drew a swift, angry reaction from Utah leaders, including Republican Gov. Gary Herbert. "I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah," the governor said. "I am working with my legal counsel and the acting attorney general to determine the best course to defend traditional marriage within the borders of Utah."
The state filed a notice of appeal late Friday and was working on an emergency stay request that would stop marriage licenses from being issued to same-sex couples.
The ruling has thrust Judge Shelby into the national spotlight less than two years after Congress approved his nomination to the federal bench. He was appointed by President Barack Obama after GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch recommended him in November 2011.
Judge Shelby served in the Utah Army National Guard from 1988 to 1996 and was a combat engineer in Operation Desert Storm. He graduated from the University of Virginia law school in 1998 and clerked for U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene in Utah, then spent about 12 years in private practice before he became a judge.
In his ruling, Judge Shelby wrote that the right to marry is a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. "These rights would be meaningless if the Constitution did not also prevent the government from interfering with the intensely personal choices an individual makes when that person decides to make a solemn commitment to another human being," he wrote.
Many similar challenges to same-sex marriage bans are pending in other states, but the Utah case has been closely watched because of the state's history of staunch opposition to gay marriage as the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church said in a statement Friday that it stands by its support for "traditional marriage."
"We continue to believe that voters in Utah did the right thing by providing clear direction in the state constitution that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and we are hopeful that this view will be validated by a higher court," the church said.
Not all Mormons were disappointed. A group called Mormons for Equality applauded the ruling, saying it was particularly sweet coming in "the heartland of our faith." The group has been among the leaders of a growing movement among Mormons to push the church to teach that homosexuality isn't a sin.
The Mormon church's stance has softened considerably since it was one of the leading forces behind California's short-lived same-sex-marriage ban, Proposition 8, in 2008. A church website launched this year encourages compassion toward gays, and church leaders backed the Boy Scouts' recent policy allowing gay youth.
The Utah ruling comes the same week New Mexico's highest court legalized gay marriage after declaring it unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A new law passed in Hawaii last month now allows gay couples to marry there.
If the ruling stands, Utah would become the 18th state to allow gay marriages, said Jon Davidson, director of Lambda Legal, which pursues litigation on LGBT issues nationwide. That's up from six before the U.S. Supreme Court last summer struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The District of Columbia also allows same-sex marriage.
State Sen. Jim Dabakis, the Utah Democratic Party chairman, was one of the first to get married in Salt Lake City with his longtime partner, Stephen Justesen. "Do you, Jim, take Steven, to be your lawfully wedded spouse?" the mayor asked shortly before a celebration erupted.
Wedding ceremonies were being performed once every few minutes in the lobby of the clerk's office, each one punctuated by hoots and hollers from the large crowd.