December is traditionally the time for Oscar-bait dramas but this year they’ve been upstaged by a 43-year-old federal judge. Judge Shelby was confirmed to the United States District Court for the District of Utah on the recommendation of Senator Orrin Hatch. He enjoyed support of Tea Party favorite Senator Mike Lee who endorsed him as “pre-eminently qualified” and predicted he would be an “outstanding judge”.
On Friday, only a little more than a year and a few months after being confirmed to the bench, Shelby struck down Utah’s law banning same-sex marriage. Depending on your politics you might view Shelby’s opinion as one of the best heel turns ever executed–up there with the moment Andre the Giant challenged Hulk Hogan to the title in WrestleMania III.  If you lean left Shelby looks like the second coming of David Souter following Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
Utahns (and a good part of the nation) have sat on the edge of their seats obsessing over the legal maneuvering and by turns celebrating and despairing. As far as drama goes, this one has had it all. The ruling itself on Friday. A motion to stay the ruling and Judge Shelby’s denial on Monday. An appeal to the 10th Circuit to stay the ruling and another denial on Christmas Eve. A promise of an appeal for a stay to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But as interesting as the legal drama has been, the personal drama has been even more compelling. Shortly after the ruling was announced a determined couple, Michael Ferguson and Seth Anderson, were rushing to the clerk’s office, got stuck in traffic and then dashed through the streets to be the first to get hitched. By Monday a majority of county clerks were issuing marriage licenses while a minority, notably in Utah County, continued to withhold them. Hundreds of gay couples have followed Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Anderson and received state recognition of their union.
My email box and Facebook feed is full of reactions. There are pictures of weddings and of joyful faces. There are photos of embraces, kisses and supportive family and friends. There are couples who have solemnized their commitment before society and the state proudly displaying their marriage certificates. There are also pictures of the Mormon church’s The Family: A Proclamation To The World and links to editorials decrying judicial tyranny. There is a state senator calling the changes in law a massacre of traditional marriage and morality. There are sincere expressions of concern about the direction our society is heading. Lurking over the whole thing, of course, is the irony of a people welded together by their ancestors’ practice of polygamy fighting about what marriage is about.
Apart from the satisfaction of seeing my own policy preferences prevail, the thing that strikes me as hopeful about the last few days is that everyone, for or against state-sanctioned gay marriage, is talking about it. Because so many people in Utah are related and connected by our Mormon heritage, and because we go to church every Sunday and sit together for three hours, and because this week is Christmas and families are gathering anyway, we are, for or against, talking about gay marriage together. The last few days have felt exactly like a family argument where feelings run high but you know your love for one another will remain no matter how crazy you make each other.
The place gay people should have in our society and the legal rights accorded them are among the great issues of our time. It is good for the populace to have a conversation about them. It is even better when the conversation is had not just in magazines and newspapers or among like-minded people, but among a divided citizenry, preferably face to face in churches and family rooms where you are reminded of the ties that bind. Mormonism’s unique demography and social structure with an assist from the calendar have resulted in a largely civil discourse on an important civic matter. The last few days have made me hopeful that wherever we end up as a church, we will arrive as a people.
 In professional wrestling “heels” are the bad guys and “faces” are good guys. Faces are usually crowd favorites but may suddenly become heels as story line unfolds. This is known as a heel turn.