One of the biggest surprises people in the state of Utah ever got came on Dec. 20, 2013, when a federal judge ruled that an amendment to the state’s constitution — defining marriage as being between one man and one woman, no exceptions — violated the U.S. Constitution.
That afternoon, LGBT couples in Utah suddenly realized that they could be married legally. So dozens of them high-tailed it to the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office to get hitched while they still could.
How this moment — one that left national pundits picking their jaws off the floor (Rachel Maddow, for one, couldn’t believe it would happen “in freakin’ Utah”) — came to pass is chronicled in an absorbing new documentary, “Church & State.”
It’s difficult for me, a Salt Lake City resident, to gauge how well the documentary will play for an audience who doesn’t live in Utah — because I watched much of the story unfold in real time. (Full disclosure: I also know some of the people involved in the film. The movie’s story consultant, Jennifer Dobner, used to be a colleague at The Salt Lake Tribune, where I work. And the movie’s producer, James Huntsman, is the brother of Paul Huntsman, the Tribune’s publisher and my boss.)
But for a local, “Church & State” spins a good yarn, giving depth and correcting some misconceptions about the case — and providing context about the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that infuses everything in Utah.
The movie begins with Mark Lawrence, an irascible gay activist who fought not only that Mormon influence but national LGBT organizations to mount a legal challenge to Utah’s Amendment 3. Lawrence talks about being on the sidelines during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and how he didn’t want to let others do the fighting this time.
Lawrence and his group, Restore Our Humanity, tried to raise money to hire a lawyer to start a case against Amendment 3. He found Peggy Tomsic, a sharp and tenacious litigator who also is a lesbian, raising an adopted son with her partner. Tomsic and her law firm took the case, and found three couples to be plaintiffs.
The case became known as Kitchen v. Herbert. Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity, who run a Middle Eastern foods company, were two of the six plaintiffs. (Kitchen later became a city councilman in Salt Lake City, and is now running for a seat in the Utah Senate.) Herbert is Gary Herbert, then and now the governor of Utah.
One of the running themes of “Church & State” is how the Mormon influence on Utah’s government not only led to the passage of Amendment 3, but also how the arrogance of the state’s lawyers hastened the ruling that undid it. An example of the state’s overconfidence: The lawyers for the Utah Attorney General’s office neglected to write up a motion asking for a stay of the judge’s ruling in case they lost. By the time they did, 17 days later, hundreds of Utah LGBT couples were already married, further complicating the case.
Directors Holly Tuckett and Kendall Wilcox synthesize a wealth of information about the case proper and Utah culture in general, taken from interviews and on-the-scene footage, into a cohesive narrative. They do so by shining a light on Lawrence, who became a forgotten hero and a bit of a pariah as his uncompromising temperament led to a rift among the principals. “Church & State” is an engaging look at justice winning out over prejudice, and the ripples that can spread from a single act of defiance.
★★★ (out of four)
‘Church & State’
Opens Friday, July 13, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City. Not rated, but probably PG-13 for language. Running time: 84 minutes.