Marriage Equality in Utah! You Can Thank Antonin Scalia. Really.

scaliaThe world has gone upside down. Who would have thought that Utah would be on the forefront of the marriage equality trend? Yet clerks are starting to issue marriage licenses in the wake of a federal ruling striking down the ban on same-sex marriages. And who would have thought that one of the LGBT’s biggest enemies helped pave the way?

No one would ever confuse Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with a friend of the LGBT community. But in striking down Utah’s ban on marriage equality Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby referred to Scalia several times in his decision to support his ruling. As it turns out, Scalia’s scathing dissent against gay marriage also foresaw the exact problem that Shelby was dealing with and gave Shelby important ammo for his decision.

The Utah ruling is a big, big deal. It’s the first time after the Supreme Court decision that a federal judge has ruled on the right of states to ban marriage. This year’s victories in New Jersey and New Mexico relied upon the state Supreme Courts there and had no impact past the respective state lines. Shelby is dealing with federal law, not state law, so his ruling has implications that go beyond Utah’s borders. (And just in case you’re wondering what the 2012 election was about, Shelby was appointed by Barack Obama.)

The problem with the Supreme Court ruling striking down DOMA was that it left unstated the full implications of the decision. The justices preferred to punt the issue to the states to deal with as they choose. But that creates chaos for couples who marry in one state but aren’t recognized as married in another. It also creates lawsuits, like the one in Utah.

For all his fuming about the DOMA ruling, Scalia was able to see the implications of it clearly (and he hated what he saw). In his ruling, Shelby said that striking down state bans on marriage equality “was the logical outcome of the Court ruling in Windsor,” the Supreme Court DOMA ruling. Shelby quotes Scalia’s prediction in his dissent:

In my opinion, however, the view that this Court will take of state prohibition of same-sex marriage is indicated beyond mistaking by today’s opinion. As I have said, the real rationale of today’s opinion . . . is that DOMA is motivated by “bare. . . desire to harm” couples in same-sex marriages. How easy it is, indeed how inevitable, to reach the same conclusion with regard to state laws denying same-sex couples marital status.

Just to rub judicial salt in Scalia’s wounds, Shelby notes that “the court agrees with Justice Scalia’s interpretation.” In other words, the Supreme Court left loose ends hanging, but it also clearly indicated how those ends will have to be tied up.

The legal battle is far from over. Utah’s attorney general plans to appeal and is seeking a temporary injunction stopping the decision from taking effect. The Mormon Church will hardly keep quiet about the ruling. And Utah is far and away the most conservative state to face the issue, so there will be a lot more resistance than there has been in other states.

But all of that said, the Utah ruling marks a major milestone for marriage equality. If a state like Utah can be forced to admit that its ban on same-sex marriage irreparably harms couples for no good reason, there really is no place left where marriage equality can’t succeed. It’s always just been a matter of time. It may just be a lot shorter time than we thought.

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