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Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch says legal gay marriage is almost certain to become a reality throughout the United States.

"Let's face it, anybody who does not believe that gay marriage is going to be the law of the land just hasn't been observing what's going on," Hatch said Wednesday on KSL Radio's "Doug Wright Show." "There is a question whether [the courts] should be able to tell the states what they can or cannot do with something as important as marriage, but the trend right now in the courts is to permit gay marriage and anybody who doesn't admit that just isn't living in the real world."

Hatch, whose Senate website shows him supporting a constitutional amendment to declare marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, has in the past railed against "liberal judges" and practitioners of "judicial activism" for attempting to foist gay marriage on society.

"Ultimately," he says on the website, "the American people, not unelected judges, should decide policy on critical social issues such as this one."

The seven-term Republican's tone was strikingly different during his interview Wednesday with Wright.

He defended two U.S. district judges: Robert Shelby, whose Dec. 20 ruling overturned the state's Amendment 3 ban on same-sex marriage, and Dale Kimball, who last week declared that Utah must recognize and uphold all legal rights of the 1,000-plus same-sex couples who wed in the state before a Jan. 6 stay.

While he said he disagreed with their decisions, Hatch described them as excellent judges who were attempting to follow the law.

"We have an excellent federal bench [in Utah]. Other federal judges down there might not have arrived at the same conclusion that these two have. But I think it's a portent of the future that sooner or later gay marriage is probably going to be approved by the Supreme Court of the United States, certainly as the people in this country move towards it, especially young people. I don't think that's the right way to go; on the other hand, I do accept whatever the courts say."

Don't blame the judge • Hatch, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, played a key role in the nominations of Kimball and Shelby by Democratic presidents. He has not joined with some other Utah Republicans — including Gov. Gary Herbert — in sharply criticizing Shelby.

He stood by the judge Wednesday, saying, "How do you blame the judge for deciding a case in accordance with what the Supreme Court has already articulated and in accordance with what most judges in the land are articulating right now? Like I say, I didn't agree with his decision. I certainly didn't agree with his failure to grant a stay, which is just kind of automatic when you know a case is going to the Supreme Court."

But he said with the decision on hold pending appeal and Utah's case and others moving through the courts, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling will "at least allow the case to be elucidated so the American people will realize that it's been given every legal consideration."

The senator indicated a decision may be forthcoming next year, calling that "an appropriate time to decide this issue once and for all. It's never going to be fully accepted by a lot of people and, frankly, it won't be accepted by a lot of the churches."

Utah's two largest denominations — the Mormon and Catholic churches — oppose same-sex marriage, although other faiths endorse it.

Hatch indicated he still believes the issue is a minefield because it affects religious rights and states' rights. He pointed to Obamacare, which he labeled "a disaster," and warned that stripping too much decision-making power from states could create "anarchy."

As recently as last year, Hatch was suggesting that civil-union laws to give people rights similar to married couples, including hospital visitation and tax benefits, might be a practical way to ward off the assault on "traditional" marriage.

He warned in an April 3, 2013, radio interview in Utah that, "If you start overturning things like that, I gotta tell you, there will be every Tom, Dick and Harry in there with some crazy marital scheme demanding the same rights and the same privileges."

Hatch did not mention civil unions nor constitutional amendments Wednesday, and he didn't warn of the destruction of traditional marriage or any other dire consequences of legal gay marriage except as the issue might affect religious and states' rights.

Other Utah leaders • Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said his office is simply fulfilling its obligation in pressing the appeal.

"Our office has a solemn duty to defend Utah's laws. In the Amendment 3 case, the law is presumed to be constitutional unless a higher court deems otherwise. Nevertheless, we respect the views of all Utah citizens," Reyes said through a spokeswoman.

Rep. Jim Matheson, the only Democrat in Utah's congressional delegation, agreed with Hatch's view of the likely legal outcome of the marriage cases.

"I have always believed the issue of same-sex marriage should, and will, be decided in the courts. Based on the number of district court decisions around the country validating same-sex marriage, it appears very likely that it will soon be the law of the land."

Sen. Mike Lee spokesman Brian Phillips said it made no sense to speculate about how the high court would rule.

Lee, R-Utah, issued a brief statement asserting his belief that "each state has a right to define marriage as it deems fit. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits a state from adhering to a traditional definition of marriage."

The governor declined comment, while other Utah political leaders did not immediately respond to requests for reaction.

Troy Williams, an activist in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, said it's about time Utah politicians begin to publicly recognize reality. "I'm happy to see Orrin Hatch is finally acknowledging the irresistible inevitability of marriage equality."

While the outcome of the legal wrangling is clear, he said, the battle is needlessly dividing the state.

"The money they're pouring into [the Amendment 3 appeal] is ultimately going to propel us faster to that end goal of marriage equality in all 50 states. It's just too bad along the way they have to demonize our community," he said, referring to legal arguments that same-sex marriage would decrease the fertility rate and harm children.

"Most Americans are waking up and saying, 'Yeah, the sky is not going to fall when my gay uncle gets married,' that families will still be intact, the world will continue to revolve around the sun, the seasons will come and life will go on," Williams said. "What the right wing and the Republicans will discover is America becomes a stronger nation when we honor the rights and liberties of all the citizens."