Last week was an intense one for same-sex couples in Utah. Same-sex couples have been getting married in Utah since December 20, when a federal district judge ruled that the state ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.
But on Wednesday, Utah governor Gary Herbert told state agencies not to recognize the marriages. The attorney general’s office said it was not sure whether the same-sex marriages that had occurred since Dec. 20 were valid.
On Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government would recognize same-sex marriages performed in Utah, even if the state did not.
Tony Milner and Matthew Barraza are among the 1,300 couples who got married and are left in legal limbo. They join Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss their situation.
Milner and Barraza’s case is complicated because they have a son, Jesse. Under the law in Utah, only Barraza is legally recognized as Jesse’s, parent. Milner cannot also be a parent unless the two are married.
“I have no standing in Utah if our relationship were ever to break up — I would have no standing for filing for any type of joint custody of Jesse,” Milner said. “We’ve put together our estate papers that basically spell out some basic protections, and kind of spell things out of our intentions, but even those wouldn’t hold up in court.”
However, Milner and Barraza are optimistic.
“I think that the momentum is there,” Barraza said. “I think it’s inevitable that nationwide same-sex marriage is going to be legal.”
- Tony Milner, director of a homeless shelter in Utah.
- Matthew Barraza, lawyer in Utah.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
The 1,300 same-sex couples that have been married in Utah since the judge declared it constitutional in December 20 have been riding a roller coaster of emotions. Last Wednesday, Governor Gary Herbert told state agencies they couldn't recognize the marriages. And the attorney general also said he wasn't sure the marriages were valid. But on Friday, the federal government said they were. Attorney General Eric Holder announcing that the federal government will recognize Utah's same-sex marriages.
Over the summer, the Supreme Court struck down the federal law that denied same-sex couples' benefits, but the Obama administration wasn't defending that law anyway. So the federal government supports same-sex couples but Utah doesn't. What does that mean?
Tony Milner and Matthew Barraza join us from the studios of KCPW in Salt Lake City. They were legally married in the Holladay United Church of Christ on December 28. And so, Tony, start with you. What does this mean, that why Utah doesn't recognize your marriage, the federal government does?
TONY MILNER: It's huge. It's huge. It's good. It's very important in the long grind of, basically, upholding our civil rights, which we've been trying to fight for here in Utah. When everything went down December 20, we were one of the first couples who ran down and got our license and went to our church and got married by the pastor and put - do not(ph) shutdown. We filed taxes jointly. We filed for a joint adoption of our son that we've raised from birth. Always these things were happening. And so then on, like you said, Wednesday, our governor and our attorney general stepped in and throw a monkey wrench into the system. So it's great. It's absolutely fantastic that Eric Holder and President Obama are on our side.
YOUNG: And - but what does it mean specifically? You mentioned a couple of things there, Tony. Start with child, Jesse. Matthew, who has custody now? What were you hoping would happen? How does this work?
MATTHEW BARRAZA: Well, at the time that Jesse was born, the status of the Utah law was that only married couples could jointly adopt a child. If you weren't legally married, then only single people could adopt. And so only one of us was able to do that and the other has not been legally recognized as the co-parent of Jesse.
YOUNG: Who's the legal parent?
BARRAZA: I am. I had the better health insurance at that time. Somehow, it's the deciding factor as to who would actually be on paper there.
YOUNG: So you have custody even though both of you have been acting as parents and raising Jesse. What would the fact that you were married have meant before the state put a hold on your marriage?
BARRAZA: Well, the next stop of the process then was that Tony could petition the court to be recognize as a co-parent, a stepparent adoption.
YOUNG: And, Tony, as we've been hearing, it sounds as if you are a parent in everything but legal state name.
MILNER: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
YOUNG: How important is that to you?
MILNER: So basically, I have no standing in Utah - if our relationship were ever to break up, I would have no standing for filing for any type of joint custody of Jesse. What we've done is we've put together our estate papers that basically spell out, you know, kind of some basic protections and kind of spell things out of our intentions, but even those wouldn't hold up in court. Of course, we want to make it as legal as possible for both of us to be the legal parents of Jesse.
BARRAZA: Basically, things have been put on hold because of the governor and attorney general's statements. And so we're waiting to see how that plays out as far as the adoption goes, the step of an adoption goes.
YOUNG: Do I hear a little - I mean, I think, perhaps, Jesse is with us. Do I hear Jesse?
YOUNG: OK. Getting back on the - well, let's move on then. So, obviously, you're concerned about that, but you do now have some of the federal benefits?
MILNER: Yes. And not only the practical benefits of being able to file federally and being eligible for Social Security benefits but just also, it was a moral boosts.
YOUNG: It's fine to people. We've been hearing a lot about this, but people might be listening and thinking, wow. I didn't even realize there were 1,300 same-sex couples in Utah and/or a church that would marry them.
YOUNG: And we actually mentioned...
YOUNG: ...the Holladay United Church of Christ before here on the program. I've attended it. It's a beautiful church. But, you know, it's a progressive pocket in Utah.
MILNER: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it is. It's been - both Matt and I grew up at LDS, which is Mormon. But then we found a good church at Holladay United Church of Christ, which is very open and very accepting of us. You know, Utah is our home. We both grew up here. We both are going to stay here. You know, there's been like the - just the vile comments that, you know, if you want to get married, go some place else. No, sorry. This is where our family and history is. We are going to stay here. We want to raise a family here.
YOUNG: What do you think is going to happen here? Because in California, same-sex marriage has also had a setback when Proposition 8 - the voter referendum passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But in the case, the existing same-sex marriages, the ones that had already taken place, remain valid. It was just no new ones were issued until a court overturned that voter referendum. Here, you have the marriages that took place like yours being declared invalid by the state. What do you think is going to happen?
MILNER: So this has been a long, long fight. You know, we've been kind of, you know, we were so happy. All of our friends were getting married. We're going to be able to joint adopt Jesse. We're going to have all these other benefits that are afforded to other legally married couples. And then, again, we kind of have this huge roadblock thrown in our place. And so you have to kind of step back and go, oh, that's right. This is a long struggle. Other states around the country have had to deal with this. We might have some more setbacks here in Utah.
BARRAZA: But I think that the momentum is there. I think it's inevitable that, eventually, nationwide same-sex marriage is going to be legal and constitutional, I mean.
YOUNG: But this is Utah and not California.
YOUNG: And you mentioned you'd been a member of the Mormon Church. As you well know, the Mormon Church, big financial backer of Prop 8 in California. Although the church did not come out with a statement when the ruling allowing same-sex marriages briefly in Utah happened. This is a very powerful church, and this is the state where the church is seated. Is that going to make it even harder? Or for all the church's stand against same-sex marriage, it might recognize what it feels like to be an outlier, which the church, you know, was also at times.
MILNER: I think there was a lot more discussion going on inside the LDS church just because there are so many people who are comfortable to come out. And so there is small change. There is small movement going on.
YOUNG: Tony Milner and Matthew Barraza were married legally in Utah on December 20th. The state has since put those marriages on hold. The federal government has stepped in and said they recognize them. And they've been talking to us about the limbo that puts them in, as 5-year-old Jesse squirms on their laps. We can hear so. We'll let you all go. Tony, Matthew, Jesse, thanks so much for being here. Thank you.
MILNER: Thank you.
BARRAZA: Thank you.
YOUNG: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.