Federal court rulings in Utah and Ohio hailed by same-sex marriage supporters

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DENVER — In decisions that supporters of same-sex marriage hailed as two important legal victories, a federal judge in Utah allowed hundreds of gay couples to continue exchanging vows Monday, while a federal judge in Ohio invalidated part of that state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

In Salt Lake City, gay couples who had been nervously lining up at county courthouses and government buildings let out a cheer when they learned that Judge Robert Shelby had refused a request by state officials to halt the nuptials. State leaders say the same-sex marriages should be suspended as the legal battle heads to a higher court.

The same-sex weddings began in a joyful chaos Friday afternoon after Judge Shelby declared that the ban on same-sex marriages that Utah voters approved in 2004 violated the U.S. Constitution. While many gay rights advocates expected a favorable ruling from Judge Shelby, an appointee of President Barack Obama, the timing caught many gay couples off-guard. About 100 same-sex couples got marriage licenses Friday night, but hundreds more were turned away as county clerks went home for the weekend.

On Monday morning, hundreds of same-sex couples lined up at county courthouses and government buildings across the state, paperwork in hand and witnesses at their side, in an anxious race against the legal system.

Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said the flurry of new marriages and unresolved legal questions — lawyers on both sides said the case was likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court — had created “a lot of chaos” in Utah. He condemned the ruling as an activist judge’s attack on a definition of traditional marriage that was supported by a wide majority of Utah residents.

And state officials said in legal papers that a “cloud of uncertainty” now hung over hundreds of new same-sex marriages. The state has argued that these unions could be voided if Utah successfully argues that it has the right to limit marriage to heterosexual couples.

But Judge Shelby rejected the state’s arguments Monday, saying all Utah residents had a “fundamental right” to get married. By the end of the day, Salt Lake County had issued about 325 marriage licenses, adding to 124 issued Friday afternoon.

Dozens of gay couples were married in other county offices across the state. But according to interviews and news reports, officials in several more conservative counties said they would not marry any same-sex couples until receiving guidance from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Denver, where the legal case is headed next.

In Ohio, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black ruled in the case of two couples who had married in states where same-sex unions are legal before the death of one of the spouses. Their survivors sought to be recognized as widowers on the Ohio death certificates.

In ordering that death certificates reflect their marital status, the judge cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that a federal law denying recognition of valid same-sex marriages was a denial of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. The Ohio judge noted that besides the dignity of the surviving spouse, his ruling gave a same-sex widow or widower rights under state law to favorable treatment in life insurance payouts, survivors’ benefits and real estate transfers.

A spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said he would appeal the ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

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