New UT Special Attorney Gen. Cites “Religious Duty” in Decision to Take Anti-Marriage Equality Case

Washington–Gene Schaerr, a Washington, D.C. partner at the law firm Winston & Strawn, is citing his personal religious beliefs as the rationale behind his decision to quit his job and become the lead counsel on the State of Utah’s case against marriage equality. In a copy of Schaerr’s departure email to colleagues at the firm, Schaerr writes that he’s taking the Utah case “so that I can fulfill what I have come to see as a religious and family duty: defending the constitutionality of traditional marriage in the state where my church is headquartered and where most of my family resides.”

“It’s alarming that the reason Gene Schaerr gives for  taking this position has nothing to do with the U.S. Constitution or the legal issues at play,” said Fred Sainz, Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Vice President of Communications. “Schaerr’s entire motivation for taking this anti-equality case is to impose a certain religious viewpoint on all Utahns – and that’s wrong. When you become an attorney, you take an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, not any particular religious doctrine.”

Same-sex couples in Utah were legally empowered to marry between December 20th and Monday, January 6th, when the U.S. Supreme Court stayed a lower court’s decision pending appeal. On Friday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that full federal recognition will extend to the more than 1,300 gay and lesbian couples who have legally married in the state. The action by the Department of Justice came after HRC President Chad Griffin wrote to Attorney General Holder  urging full recognition for the Utah couples.

Schaerr’s language in his departure e-mail places a heavy emphasis on religion, which is out-of-step with many of the arguments against marriage equality that have come out of the Utah Attorney General’s office.

“It’s interesting that his stated motivation for the new position is not one of the arguments made by the State of Utah,” added Sainz.  “It’s fair to question whether all of the arguments they have made are just an elaborate front for some other agenda.”

Schaerr’s departure from Winston & Strawn also indicates the growing momentum for equality in that it is no longer acceptable for a major law firm to take a patently anti-gay case. In 2011, King & Spaulding, the law firm hired by House Speaker John Boehner to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), dropped their involvement in the case following an HRC campaign. In a move similar to Schaerr’s, one of the firm’s partners, Paul Clement, resigned from the firm and continued to defend DOMA.

The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.

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