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Local Michael Aaron

We were marrying five years ago today

Written by Michael Aaron

This is a condensed version of an article I wrote Christmas Eve 2013 when Judge Robert Shelby ruled Utah’s laws and Amendment 3 against same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

As I walked into the Salt Lake County Complex building, I heard whoops coming from a crowd of dozens surrounded by news cameras, many with cell phones snapping photos. I immediately recognized First Baptist Church pastor Curtis Price, dressed in his black vestments and rainbow-colored stole. The mood was jubilant as couple-after- couple paraded before several wedding officiants available to marry same-sex couples after the ruling by District Court Judge Robert Shelby that Utah’s Amendment 3 is unconstitutional.


In the first same-sex marriage case to have a decision since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled California’s Proposition 8 and parts of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, Shelby ruled, “Applying the law as it is required to do, the court holds that Utah’s prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law. The State’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional.”

“Are you paying attention?” QSaltLake Magazine salesperson and writer Bob Henline texted me. Indeed, I was heads-down doing subscriptions and billing for our issue that hit the streets today. I pulled open my email and the first subject I saw made me say something I’d never say in front of my mother.

Utah’s Amendment 3 and other marriage laws unconstitutional. I clamored for the official text and read the 53-page document front to back, seemingly not taking a breath the entire read. I hurriedly put up a “Breaking News” story and continued to flesh it out after tweeting and Facebooking it.

“I’m on my way to the [Salt Lake] County Clerk’s office,” Henline said in a call that broke through my thoughts. “Two people are down there getting married right now.”

No way, I thought. They won’t give them a license yet. “Text me a photo of the license when they get it.”

Minutes later I get a photo text. It’s the license. I think I fainted.

In the ’80s, when I started working in the gay rights movement, I was asked all the time by the press, “Do you think we’ll ever see gay marriage in Utah?” My pat response was always, “We will. It won’t be in my lifetime, but it will happen. But only if we start fighting today.”

My timeline was a bit off.

Michael Ferguson and J. Seth Anderson had gotten a text of the news of Shelby’s ruling, looked at each other and said, “let’s get down there.” Probably the most romantic marriage proposal anyone’s ever heard.

Deputy Clerk Dahnelle Burton-Lee called vacationing County Clerk Sherrie Swensen to see what she wanted to do.

“Give them a license,” Swensen said. And she did. With tears of joy in her eyes.

The couple was waiting on a wedding officiant to make it legal, when Burton-Lee offered to perform the ceremony. As they were preparing, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill rushed in and pulled Burton-Lee from the room to discuss the ruling. Burton-Lee turned to the couple and said, “You have a legal, official document in your hands. If you find someone to marry you, do it.”

Henline, who was watching and recording all of this, said, “I can marry you. I’m a wedding officiant.” And he did. Henline now has a place in Utah history, alongside Ferguson and Anderson, as participating in the first same-sex marriage in the state.

My phone rang again, and my friend Marty Pendry in St. George said he called the Washington County Clerk about a marriage license and was told to call the Attorney General’s office. The person who answered said they weren’t comfortable answering his question and said to call the county clerk back. County Clerk Kim M. Hafen said she’d be thrilled to give them a license, but hadn’t had anyone tell her she could. She said to call County Attorney Brock Belnap, who had just received the ruling. It was 3 p.m. and Hafen said that they close marriage certificates at 4:30. Belnap said he would read through the ruling and contact the county clerk’s office.

At 4:20 p.m., I got a call from Pendry. “They said yes! We are on our way to the county clerk right now. They said yes!”

I was already at the Salt Lake County Building by then and made several news people aware that Pendry and his partner Brian Struthers were on their way to the St. George offices to pick up a marriage license. When the couple got there, news people were arriving with cameras.

I grabbed Restore Our Humanity’s Mark Lawrence, who filed the case that Shelby ruled on with three Utah couples, and gave him the biggest hug I’ve given in a long time, whispering in his ear, “Thank you for doing this. You did this. This is your day. Congratulations.”

When I pulled back he had tears in his eyes and he said, “It’s a good day, huh?”

I finally made it upstairs to the actual Clerk’s office. There was a line down the hall. All the way down the hall. Volunteers with clipboards, including many from the Utah Pride Center, were helping people complete their applications. Four clerks were behind the counter processing them and Utah Pride’s Megan Risbon was outside the doors directing them to a half dozen or so officiants, ready to marry them.

Suddenly, people called for quiet as reporters rushed around Utah State Sen. Jim Dabakis and his partner Stephen Justesen. By god, if Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker wasn’t there marrying them. Another whoop of cheers.
Around 5 p.m. I asked what the plan was for the Clerk’s office, since it was nearing closing time. Sim Gill told everyone to stay put as people started being denied. Twenty minutes later, however, they were unable to reach the vacationing Swensen, so they shut the licensing down.

I’ve heard no numbers yet as to how many people were married today, other than Becker married 34 couples. One clerk estimated the number at 120 couples.

Of course, the acting Utah Attorney General is saying the state will go to an appeals court for an injunction to stop the weddings. But that can’t happen until Monday at the earliest. In the meantime, hundreds of newlyweds made history.

Did this just happen?

About the author

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the editor and publisher of QSaltLake. He has been active in Utah's gay and lesbian community since the early 80s and published two publications then and in the 90s.

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