Why Utah Matters

“This one feels different,” was how Rachel Maddow summed up last week’s marriage-equality victory in Utah on her show, hours after the US District Court judge handed down his opinion. She and her guest, NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino, talked about the politics of the state, the strong influence the Mormon church, and legal strategists’ belief that Utah would be one of the last states to recognize same-sex marriages. There’s no denying that this victory is incredibly important.

The victory is particularly important for LGBT families in Utah. According to research by the Williams Institute, 30% of same-sex couples in the state are raising children under the age of 18. In Salt Lake City alone roughly 26% of same-sex couples have children – the highest rate of parenting in a metropolitan area of over 1 million people. But before this ruling Utah did not grant second-parent or step-parent adoptions to same-sex couples, or even allow same-sex couples to adopt jointly. (This should change, but time will tell whether the courts will resist fully implementing the ruling.) That means for 2,900 Utah children, only one of their parents is legally recognized; the other parent is a stranger under the law.

The New York Times talked to one couple for whom their family was their primary motivation for marrying on the Monday following the ruling:

“We’re just waiting with bated breath,” said Amy Wilson, seven months pregnant, who spent much of [Sunday] night outside the offices of the Salt Lake County clerk. “We’re not missing this.”

Her daughter is due in February, and Ms. Wilson said that a marriage license would mean she and her partner of seven years, Emily Eresuma, would both be recognized as the child’s parents, each of their names listed on her birth certificate. Without the license, they have been exploring out-of-state adoptions and other costly measures to ensure both women are legal guardians.

Utah is hardly alone as a state with high rates of same-sex couples parenting children. Virginia Beach, Detroit, Memphis, and San Antonio complete the top 5 according to the Williams Institute. And all are located in states that do not provide avenues to protect the parental rights of same-sex parents. Eighteen down, thirty-two to go . . . .