A federal judge struck down Utah's same-sex marriage ban Friday in a decision that brings a nationwide shift toward allowing gay marriage to 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 gay couples while state officials took steps to appeal the ruling and halt the process.
Cheers erupted as the mayor of Salt Lake City led one of the state's first gay wedding ceremonies in an office building about three miles from the headquarters of the Mormon church. Dozens of other couples were lined up to get marriage licenses.
Deputy Salt Lake County Clerk Dahnelle Burton-Lee said the district attorney authorized her office to begin issuing the licenses but she couldn't immediately say how many had been issued.
Just hours earlier, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby issued a 53-page ruling Friday saying Utah's law passed by voters in 2004 violates gay and lesbian couples' rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
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," Shelby wrote.
The decision drew a swift and 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. 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," Herbert said.
The state filed a notice of appeal late Friday and was working on a request for an emergency stay that would stop marriage licenses from being issued to same-sex couples.
"It will probably take a little bit of time to get everything in place," said Ryan Bruckman, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. Bruckman said the judge told the attorney general's office that it would be a couple of days before he would review any request for an emergency stay.
The ruling has thrust the judge into the national spotlight less than two years after Congress approved his nomination to the federal bench. Shelby was appointed by President Barack Obama after GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch recommended him in November 2011.
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 the U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene in Utah, then spent about 12 years in private practice before he became a judge.
The 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. The ruling is the first on a state same-sex marriage ban since the Supreme Court last summer struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which stipulated that marriage was between a man and woman.
During a nearly four-hour hearing earlier this month in Salt Lake City, attorneys for the state argued that Utah's law promotes the state's interest in "responsible procreation" and the "optimal mode of child-rearing." They also asserted it's not the courts' role to determine how a state defines marriage, and that the Supreme Court ruling doesn't give same-sex couples the universal right to marry. The lawsuit was brought by three gay and lesbian couples in Utah. One of the couples was legally married in Iowa and just wants that license recognized in Utah.
Many similar court challenges are pending in other states, but Utah's 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.
Peggy Tomsic, the attorney who represents the three couples, applauded Shelby's courage in making the ruling. "We cannot capture in words the gratitude and joy plaintiffs feel," Tomsic said in a statement.
But she warned that the legal fight was not over.
During this month's hearing, Tomsic contended marriage is a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. She said the case embodies the civil rights movement of our time, saying discrimination has gone on long enough.
She said Utah's law, which passed with two-thirds of the vote, is "based on prejudice and bias that is religiously grounded in this state."