Salt Lake City - Utah greeted the Supreme Court's landmark rulings in two gay marriage cases on Wednesday with mixed reactions.
The Mormon church criticized the U.S. Supreme Court's decision and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert vowed to defend the state's own voter-approved ban on gay marriage. Conservative and religious groups gathered Wednesday night in a Salt Lake City suburb in a "celebration of traditional marriage."
Meanwhile, gay rights groups and challengers of Utah's voter-approved same-sex marriage ban celebrated the rulings, calling them a landmark victory and saying they leave the state's gay marriage ban vulnerable to legal challenges.
Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said the ruling highlights troubling questions about the country's democratic and judicial systems. The LDS church helped fund and lead the charge for California's Proposition 8, a constitutional ban on gay marriage that voters adopted in 2008 after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay Californians could marry.
"Many Californians will wonder if there is something fundamentally wrong when their government will not defend or protect a popular vote that reflects the views of a majority of their citizens," the church said in a statement Wednesday morning.
Church leaders said the rulings don't change their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that same-sex relationships are sinful. The statement added that time has proved that children are best nurtured in a household with a father and mother.
The church's support of Proposition 8 in the mid-2000s drew intense criticism and backlash. Since then, Mormon leaders have tried to heal tensions by encouraging members to be more compassionate toward gay and more recently supporting the Boy Scouts of America's new policy allowing gay youth to join the ranks.
Some Mormons have come together to form organizations to show support for gay rights. One such group, Mormons for Equality, applauded the Supreme Court decision. Executive Director Spencer Clark said a growing number of Mormons are standing up in respectful disagreement with the church's long-standing opposition to gay marriage because they see it as a civil rights issue.
"We don't believe we should be taking away the rights of others no matter what our religious views may be on marriage," said Clark, a straight man married with kids.
In Washington, D.C., where Clark lives, his stance is mostly applauded by fellow Mormons but he said other Mormons in the group living in conservative parts of the country, such as Utah, have reported some backlash.
Mormons account for at least 62 percent of the 2.8 million people living in Utah, U.S. Census figures show. The LDS church has its worldwide headquarters in Salt Lake City and Mormon account for a majority of elected officials.
Republicans have a stranglehold on the state. The governor, the state's two senators and three of the state's four members of Congress are GOP. Among registered voters, Republicans outnumber Democrats five to one.
Utah already had a state law defining marriage as only between a man and a woman when, in 2004, voters amended the state's constitution to ban gay marriage. Earlier this year, the state filed court briefs asking the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold state and federal laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Herbert, a Republican, said Wednesday that marriage should be an issue left to the states.
"I support and will continue to defend Utah's constitutional definition of marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman," the governor said in a statement, while adding, "I also believe that discrimination has no place in society. I hope we can find a path that protects all from discrimination while defending the sanctity of traditional marriage."
Several hundred people attended Wednesday evening's rally supporting traditional marriage.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative family-values group the Utah Eagle Forum and one of the organizers of the event, said it was planned to show that people are grateful to live in a state that recognizes the importance of marriage being between a man and a woman.
"We're celebrating marriage and mothers and fathers. Every child needs a mother and father," Ruzicka said.
Al Alexander, who was greeting people attending the rally, spoke against the court decision.
"I think what the Supreme Court has done today is create a divide in the nation, a divide that can only lead to more confrontation and more difficulty," he said. "I believe we are going down a deep moral slide and I don't know where it's going to end ..."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Utah gay-rights activists gathered Wednesday morning at the Utah Pride Center to celebrate the ruling. About two dozen supporters attended the event. Some cried and handed out tissues as leaders of the group addressed reporters.
"Today we celebrate the firm legal foundation the court has established that will begin to wash away the layers of anti-gay legislation we've seen over the last few decades," said Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center.
Mark Lawrence, director of an organization backing a challenge by three couples to Utah's same-sex marriage ban, said the ruling establishes a powerful precedence that they will be able to use that case.
"It's going to make it much easier for us," Lawrence said.
Attorney General John Swallow said Wednesday evening that his office has not yet had a chance to digest the rulings and determine how it will affect their defense of Utah's law.
"But we don't expect these rulings will have a big impact on our plan moving forward because we really expected this kind of ruling," Swallow said. "They really left it to the states."
Among those at the gay rights event was attorney Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney for Utah who was appointed by President George W. Bush. Tolman, whose sister is a lesbian, has cited his sister's fight to marry her longtime partner in his shift from conservative beliefs to his support of same-sex marriage.
Tolman, who wrote a legal brief to the Supreme Court in support of same sex marriage, called Wednesday's ruling a "goosebump moment."
"That battle's not over. We certainly have many more battles ahead of us," Tolman said, but added, "I think it is a pivotal moment and it sends a message."