"There's a system of discrimination that impacts LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people who live in Utah," Paul Burke, an attorney representing Utah Pride said during a news conference Wednesday where the court participation was announced.
Burke cited four events in Utah as examples of discrimination against the LGBT community. He said the first occurred on Jan. 30, 1996, when the Utah Senate met behind closed doors to prevent teens from forming gay-straight alliance clubs in public high schools. Lawmakers later enacted school club laws that raised obstacles to starting such clubs in schools.
Prohibiting same-sex couples from adopting children and denying marriage "equality" are other examples of discrimination, Burke said.
In 2004, Utah voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The Beehive State, like many other states at the time, already had a law defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, but Amendment 3 specifically does not recognize same-sex marriages, even if they are performed in a state where they are legal. Amendment supporters at the time said the issue would be on firmer legal ground if it were embedded in the Utah Constitution.
Bill Duncan, director of the Utah-based Marriage Law Foundation, said Wednesday his group has also submitted what's called an "amicus" brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, but for the opposing side, arguing marriage is defined as a man and a woman.
Duncan said dozens of amicus briefs will likely be filed from both sides on the gay-marriage cases.
"[An amicus brief] is a written submission giving arguments for why [the Supreme Court] should rule one way or another," Duncan said. "We're just trying to bring things that are important to the court's attention."
Legal experts have said the Supreme Court has wide latitude in both cases, so their decisions could decide the gay-marriage issue for the nation or leave it up to each state.
The court's rulings will come amid a rapid shift in public attitudes about same-sex marriage, with recent polls indicating that a majority of Americans support allowing such unions. And in November, voters in three states Maine, Maryland and Washington approved same-sex marriage, marking the first time the issue was approved by voters instead of the result of legislative or court action.
Many Utahns not only have a philosophical connection to California's Prop 8, they have a financial interest.
The California law passed with 52 percent of the state's vote, saying marriage is a man and a woman, but it was overturned in 2010 by a federal judge, and then the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision. The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent $189,004 on the "Yes on 8" campaign, while businesses and individuals from Utah contributed $3.8 million to the campaign, more than 70 percent of it in support of Prop 8.
Allen Miller, a Utah Pride board member, said the center's Wednesday announcement that it will dive into the Supreme Court debate holds special meaning for him. He said although he always knew he was gay, he remained married to his wife and raised a family in the Mormon church for more than 30 years.
But in the end, he divorced his wife and left the church.
"We all deserve equality," Miller said.
Burke and Brett Tolman, who is also representing the center in court, said Utah has a special place in the gay-marriage debate because of what they termed as "heightened discrimination" against LGBT citizens.
"We are at a crossroads in our history," said Tolman, a former U.S. Attorney for Utah who is now in private practice. "Legal equality should be in the reach of every individual."
Valerie Larabee, executive director of the center, said: "Utahns' voice in the fight for marriage equality has been long, distinguished and visible."
The Supreme Court will hear the two gay-marriage cases on March 25 and 26, and if it follows tradition, the court will release its decisions the last week of June.
Twitter: @rayutah Being fired in Utah for being gay
As the Utah Pride Center announced Wednesday that it will enter the U.S. Supreme Court's debate on marriage equality, another civil rights advocacy group, Equality Utah, will hold a forum Wednesday night to discuss discrimination against LGBT Utahns. Equality Utah said there are up to five complaints filed every month by gay and transgender Utahns who have been fired, simply for being, or being perceived as, gay or transgender. These citizens have no recourse because Utah doesn't currently protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. There is no statewide nondiscrimination policy, although some cities have enacted them.