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April 24, 2014

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Utah county faces lawsuit on gay marriage refusal

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The Deseret News, Tom Smart / AP

About 1,500 people gather to celebrate marriage equality after a federal judge declined to stay his ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in Utah, at Washington Square just outside of the Salt Lake City and County Building Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Some county clerks in Utah refused Tuesday to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, even though they could face legal consequences after a judge stuck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

The Utah attorney general's office has warned counties they could be held in contempt of federal court if they refuse to issue the licenses.

At the same time, state lawyers have asked a federal appeals court to halt the judge's ruling and stop any more same-sex marriages.

It's created a confusing set of circumstances for clerks, gay couples and anyone watching the state's reaction to the surprise ruling on Friday.

More than 700 same-sex couples have married in Utah since Friday.

Among those refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples is Utah County Clerk Bryan Thompson, who said he was waiting for the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on Utah's motion for a stay before deciding his next move. The court is considering arguments and could rule at any time.

A lesbian couple filed a lawsuit Monday against Utah County because of its refusal, but Thompson said he was remaining steadfast against giving up any licenses to any same-sex couples.

"Until I receive further information, the Utah County Clerk's Office will not be making any policy changes in regards to which we issue marriage licenses," Thompson said Tuesday.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office, Ryan Bruckman, said the office was not giving legal guidance to clerks' offices.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said prosecution of county clerks is unlikely. The holdouts wouldn't face sanctions unless the plaintiffs who sued Utah asked the judge for a contempt finding, said Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney David Barlow.

Lawyers for the state are trying every legal avenue to halt the practice and are waiting for the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on a request to stop the issuing of licenses to gay couples while the appeals process plays out.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby, who issued Friday's landmark ruling, already rejected the state's request to bring the marriages to a halt on Monday.

In the meantime, state agencies have begun trying to sort out how the gay marriages may impact state services.

Gov. Gary Herbert's office sent a letter to state agencies Tuesday afternoon advising them to comply with the judge's ruling or consult the Utah attorney general's office if the ruling conflicts with other laws or rules.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services, which administers programs such as food stamps and welfare, is recognizing the marriages of gay couples when they apply for benefits, spokesman Nic Dunn told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

It's unclear whether Utah will allow married same-sex couples to jointly file their state income tax returns next year, as they will be able to do for federal returns.

Charlie Roberts, a spokesman for the Utah State Tax Commission, said the agency still needs to consult the Utah attorney general's office about the issue.

In October, the commission stipulated that because Utah did not recognize same-sex marriages, same-sex couples who had married out of state could not file jointly in Utah.

The state income tax forms do not currently require filers to specify gender, so it's possible same-sex couples could have already filed jointly in previous years, but Roberts said the commission never been aware of such as case.

Utah is the 18th state where gay couples can wed or will soon be able to marry. The legal wrangling over the topic will likely continue for months. The 10th Circuit will likely will hear the full appeal of the case several months from now.

Even if the 10th Circuit grants a stay or overturns the ruling, legal analyst say the marriage licenses that already have been issued probably will remain valid.

Associated Press writer Michelle Price contributed to this report.

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