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Plaintiffs challenging Utah's gay marriage ban stand together Thursday after leaving court following a hearing at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. / Brennan Linsley, AP

DENVER - Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity are businessmen. Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge are school teachers.

Nothing out of the ordinary so far.

Yet these two young men and middle-aged women took a giant step Thursday toward the pantheon of civil rights figures whose refusal to abide by stereotypes changed the course of history. Fitting, perhaps, that their 15 minutes of fame came during a national commemoration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

They are plaintiffs in Kitchen v. Herbert, the first same-sex marriage case to reach a federal appeals court since last June's landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings advanced the cause - but stopped short of legalizing gay marriage nationwide.

And so Kitchen and colleagues - including Kate Call and an ailing Karen Archer, 67, who are dealing with wills and medical directives that confound many couples - are seeking marriage rights in one of the unlikeliest of states: Utah.

It's a simple, family-values request. Marriage, after all, is the goal of many worthy public policy initiatives, such as laws that discourage divorce or encourage fathers to get involved in their children's lives. Yet for gays and lesbians, it remains elusive.

Archer and Call traveled to Iowa, one of 17 states that permit gay marriage, to tie the knot in 2011 because of Archer's deteriorating health. That's reminiscent of octogenarian Edith Windsor, who traveled to Canada to wed Thea Spyer before Spyer died of complications from multiple sclerosis in 2009. When the federal government taxed her $363,000 on Spyer's estate, Windsor sued - and won at the Supreme Court last June, which struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Wood and Partridge were among the very first to marry in Utah after District Judge Robert Shelby struck down the state's ban in December. But the Supreme Court put a hold on that ruling in early January, stranding the couple and more than 1,000 others in a marital no-man's-land - holding a certificate but little else until the issue is resolved.

Kitchen and Sbeity aren't married yet. Still courting in their mid-20s, they are the most demonstrative of the three couples. In court on Thursday, Sbeity sat with his arm around Kitchen's shoulders as three judges and two lawyers debated their fate.

Far from the daily squabbles in Washington, it was a downright civil debate. Each side acknowledged the other's interests. Peggy Tomsic, the couples' attorney, said Utah's exclusion of gays and lesbians from marriage rights was wrong, but not necessarily mean-spirited or bigoted. Gene Schaerr, the state's attorney, acknowledged children of gay couples who marry legally and then move to Utah "would likely be better off" if those marriages were recognized.

The night before, huddled in a downtown Denver hotel room before a late dinner together, two of the couples tried to explain their desires for the right to marry that heterosexual couples have always taken for granted.

Growing up in conservative, heavily Mormon Utah, "marriage was the natural goal," Wood, 59, said.

Wood and Partridge went so far after their state-disputed marriage that they filed a joint tax return. As a professional couple without children, "we were happy to take that marriage penalty tax," Partridge, 47, said.

Kitchen and Sbeity are in no hurry to marry. They want a traditional wedding with their families present - maybe at a downtown Salt Lake City farmers' market on Oct. 10, the anniversary of the day they met.

First, though, there will be more legal hurdles to surmount. Thursday's standing-room-only hearing at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit was one of many. A future date at the Supreme Court is possible.

"If we're the right case, then we want to go," Wood said.

"Any loving couple would be the right couple," Kitchen said.

"How awesome would it be," Sbeity said, "to have equality come out of Utah?"

Richard Wolf covers the U.S. Supreme Court for USA TODAY.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Voices: Seeking the right for everyone to marry

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