By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Four same-sex couples sued the state of Utah on Tuesday over Governor Gary Herbert's refusal to recognize gay marriages performed during a brief period while same-sex matrimony was legal in the conservative, heavily Mormon state.
Utah temporarily became the 18th U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage when a federal district judge ruled on December 20 that a state ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. His ruling was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before about 1,400 gay couples had tied the knot.
The four couples who sued on Tuesday were married in Utah between December 20 and January 6, and are asking the court to declare their marriages valid and order the state to recognize them. They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and a private law firm.
"By retroactively stripping plaintiffs' marriages of legal recognition, the State of Utah has put these couples and their families in legal limbo and prevented legally married same-sex couples from accessing critical protections for themselves and their children," said the lawsuit, filed in third district court in Salt Lake City.
No hearings have been set in the case, and Utah has 20 days to respond to the filing.
John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU of Utah, told a news conference that the state's refusal to recognize same-sex marriages had caused a level of uncertainty and confusion that couples shouldn't have to navigate.
Plaintiffs Tony Milner and his husband Matthew Barraza are fathers to a 4-year-old son although only Barazza is considered a parent under the law. Milner said the couple immediately began an adoption process so that both men would become his legal parents, and which may now be put on hold.
"We think that this lawsuit will probably be the quickest answer to that question," Milner said. "Custody is a huge thing. In the eyes of the law, I'm a legal stranger to the child that I've raised from birth."
Little more than a decade ago, none of the 50 U.S. states recognized same-sex marriage. Since then, attitudes have changed rapidly in some parts of the country.
Seventeen U.S. states plus the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage, and federal court rulings would add Utah and Oklahoma to that group if legal decisions overturning gay marriage bans in those states are upheld.
FOLLOW THE LAW
In Utah, the governor's office has said that as the legal battle plays out, the state cannot officially recognize the marriages that took place before the stay was issued.
Under Utah's policy, the state will not revoke benefits already granted but will not grant new ones. As an example, the governor's office has said that a married same-sex couple that had already changed their names on their drivers' licenses would not see them revoked. But no new changes would be allowed.
"Governor Herbert has said throughout this process that his responsibility is to follow the law," Herbert spokesman Marty Carpenter said. "That is exactly what the administration is doing, and we respect the rights of those who disagree to take their grievances before a judge."
The Obama administration has pledged to recognize same-sex marriages in Utah even though the state will not do so.
Together for nine years, plaintiffs Marina Gomberg and Eleanor Heyborne said they joined the case in part because they don't want to have to leave Utah, where both were raised, to build a life together.
"I felt more human than I've ever felt when we got to sign our marriage license," Gomberg said. "We're loving and committed couples. We just want the protections that other loving and committed couples are able to enjoy."
Even as an increasing number of U.S. states recognize gay marriage, 33 states ban such unions through state constitutional amendments, statutes, or both. Oklahoma and Utah both have voter-approved constitutional amendments on the books defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year issued two high-profile decisions on gay marriage. One ruling struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The other paved the way for gay marriage to resume in California.
(Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernadette Baum and Ken Wills)