LGBT activists from the United Church of Christ see the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to temporarily halt same-sex marriages in Utah as a "disappointing" setback. But their belief is that justice and fairness will prevail in the appeals process, once again giving all people in the state the freedom to marry the person they love.
On December 20, Utah became the 18th state in the nation permitting the weddings of same-sex couples. A U.S. District Court ruling that day struck down the state's same-sex constitutional ban because it demeans the dignity of same-sex couples who were prohibited that right. Since then the state has sought to appeal that decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay on Monday, Jan. 6, halting any new marriages, until the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals weighs its opinion on the case.
"In the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave' everyone has the right to expect equal protection under the law. That includes same-sex couples who want their marriages to have legal standing," said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy. "Appeals are part of our judicial process and a stay pending appeal is nothing new."
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister for the UCC's Local Church Ministries and the first openly gay officer of the church, said that thousands of people nationally are impacted by marriage equality, or the lack of it, as evidenced by the nearly 1,000 same-gender couples that rushed to marry in Utah last month. Schuenemeyer and Guess both believe the district court and U.S. judge Robert Shelby got the ruling right the first time and both are confident that decision will prevail through the appeals process.
"Every day that equality is denied is one day too long, but I have every confidence that the 10th Circuit will ultimately side with the district judge's sound ruling and that the right to marry the person you love will resume for all Utahans," Guess said. "This is a temporary, disappointing step back, but ultimately it could potentially lay the groundwork for judicial challenges in other western states, if the 10th Circuit decides as we hope."
One of those who rushed to marry is the Rev. Gage Church, pastor of Congregational UCC in Ogden, Utah, and his now-husband Tim Sharp. Church was pushed to the front of the line Dec. 23 so he could be married first and then marry other couples – which was the primary reason they went to the county clerk's office. Church and Sharp were the first couple to get a license that day in Weber County, and Church and other clergy married about 60 couples as Sharp acted as witness to those nuptials.
"It was an exciting and enthusiastic atmosphere, but there was tension hanging over that at any moment the original judge or appellate court could issue an immediate stay to cut it all off," Church said. "We've been together for 20 years, and we always said we wouldn't get married unless it was allowed in that state. You shouldn't have to go to another state to do that.
"Our church is very excited for us and that this has happened," Church continued. People on both sides are still kind of stunned that this has happened in Utah. Newspapers are full of letters and columns… [LGBT people] are very much in the minority here."
Church said that the debate on marriage equality in Utah has been respectful, and that both sides believe they'll prevail in the appeals process.
"I think there's optimism on both sides," he said. "Then there's concern about the validity of the marriages that took place and the children in those marriages. It's very confusing. As joyful as the idea has been, it's going to take a lot of work."
Because of people like Church, Guess believes the UCC has been a visible witness as a community of faith in favor marriage equality.
"While the United Church of Christ is relatively small in Utah, our churches there have been early and outspoken proponents for LGBT equality," Guess said. "I am so proud of their strong, clear articulation of a radically inclusive Christian faith, and the difference they are making in people's lives."
Schuenemeyer has a message to same-sex couples already married in Utah: "I congratulate you and pray God's blessings on your marriage," he said. "While the court may rule your legal standing away, although I am confident in my hope they won't, they can never remove the vows you have solemnly shared. I stand in solidarity with you and know the day will soon come when marriage equality will be available to everyone."