The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday, Oct. 6, it will not hear same-sex marriage appeals from Utah and four other states. Response to the announcement in Utah was swift, with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes holding a press conference the same morning.
“This is historical. This is groundbreaking. This is of great significance to our culture and to the laws of the land. It’s different than what we’ve had for the past 227 years,” Herbert said.
The governor said the 10th Circuit Court had remanded its own stay — which had halted same-sex marriages — that morning, and he ordered all departments to make the change immediately and change forms as needed.
Herbert said the state had budgeted less than expected, around $600,000, to appeal to the Supreme Court. Herbert explained Utah’s appeal to lower courts’ rulings was pursued because the people of Utah voted for it, but he said Utah is a state that believes in upholding the law as it stands. “I do personally believe it is a state-right issue. I’ve believed that in the past and believe that today,” he said.
The Supreme Court did not say why it was refusing petitions from Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin to reevaluate appellate courts’ decisions on same-sex marriage.
Brett Scharffs, associate dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, explained the Supreme Court has the discretion to accept or decline writs of certiorari, or writs requesting the court’s attention. It typically accepts cases either because there is a discrepancy between appellate courts’ decisions or because of a significant, unresolved issue.
“With respect to the importance of the issue, many had hoped that the court would step in and resolve on a national basis of the important questions,” Scharffs said. “I think the Supreme Court may have not felt that it had to intervene because there really isn’t this sort of circuit split that generally triggers a cert. review.”
Although the Supreme Court sometimes refuses to rule on controversial issues because of technical errors with the case itself, this decision was made based on the policy, said Lynn Wardle, a professor specializing in family law at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.
“The court loses its prestige every time they make a controversial ruling,” Wardle said.
This was a risk-free response to a controversial situation. That said, lower courts had already been issuing rulings from the Supreme Court’s decision on California’s Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.
“It’s a little disingenuous of the court to pretend they haven’t made the decision,” Wardle said. “It was able to sort of give the marching orders without having to take responsibility.”
Another possible explanation is that conservative Supreme Court justices pushed for the non-decision, Wardle said. They may have worried that their peers would force all 50 states to accept same-sex marriage and hoped to delay the final decision until a liberal justice retires.
Response to the announcement
The Supreme Court’s announcement comes two days after Elder Dallin H. Oaks, of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve, spoke in the church’s General Conference. His address seemed to anticipate the Supreme Court’s announcement, as it reaffirmed traditional marriage values throughout the political debate over same-sex marriage.
Some behaviors, “even though unacceptable to some believers, may simply need to be endured if legalized by what a Book of Mormon prophet called ‘the voice of the people,'” Elder Oaks said. “When our positions do not prevail, we should accept unfavorable results graciously and practice civility with our adversaries.”
Leader of other faiths, like those of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, don’t see this decision as a permanent solution. Bishop John C. Wester, leader of Utah’s 300,000 Catholics defines marriage as a sacred relationship, open to procreation.
“There is no other relationship like it — it’s unique,” Wester said. “The state seeking to change that definition is not a good thing for society at large. We respect others’ right to disagree, but we feel we have a right and responsibility to say what we believe marriage is.”
Advocacy groups on both sides issued statements via their websites and Facebook pages.
Equality Utah, which is dedicated to secure equal rights and protections for LGBT Utahns and their families, said, “We are thrilled the Supreme Court is letting the Tenth Circuit victory stand, which means that same-sex couples in Utah and the rest of the Tenth Circuit now have the freedom to marry and to have their marriages treated equally.”
The Sutherland Institute, which is dedicated to Utah conservatism, state rights and family issues, said, “Sutherland Institute is deeply disappointed that the Supreme Court has failed to correct the lawlessness of lower courts that have deprived the people of Utah and other states of their ability to protect that entitlement.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also released a statement via Mormon Newsroom. “The succession of federal court decisions in recent months, culminating in today’s announcement by the Supreme Court, will have no effect on the doctrinal position or practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The statement reaffirmed the Church would continue to teach that only marriage between a man and a woman is acceptable to God. It said respectful coexistence is possible even among people with differing views. “As far as the civil law is concerned, the courts have spoken. Church leaders will continue to encourage our people to be persons of good will toward all, rejecting persecution of any kind based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or non-belief, and differences in sexual orientation.”
A number of “collateral issues” will come up that will be settled in courts, Wardle said. These include adoption, parenting and divorce for same-sex couples. For example, will a lesbian couple be treated as the parents of a child when at least one individual has no biological relationship with the child? All these issues will now be resolved through complex litigation, Wardle said.
Utah’s attorney general Sean Reyes said now that same-sex marriages are completely legal, many of the adoption cases in court are moot and can be dismissed.
Wardle said the numerous states that still have constitutional bans against same-sex marriage will likely receive challenges in court.
“If the desire of the court was to resolve this once and for all, this didn’t accomplish that,” Wardle said.
To read more reactions to this announcement see http://unvr.se/1oKt60z.