Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's office announced Wednesday that the state will not recognize same-sex marriages performed since last month, leaving gay couples in the lurch amid a raging court battle.
The decision from Herbert's office adds to the confusion in Utah, in the wake of a federal judge's Dec. 20 ruling against the state's same-sex marriage ban. During a two-week period, hundreds of gay and lesbian couples in one of the country's most conservative states got married -- in those counties willing to offer licenses.
But the Supreme Court on Monday once again put gay marriage on hold while the state appeals.
Herbert Chief of Staff Derek Miller went a step further on Wednesday, saying in an email to Cabinet members that the ruling means Utah cannot perform or recognize gay marriages.
"Based on counsel from the Attorney General's Office regarding the Supreme Court decision, state recognition of same-sex marital status is ON HOLD until further notice," he wrote.
That means state agencies are barred, going forward, from extending state services -- normally available to married couples -- to gay couples who wed last month.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, more than 1,300 gay couples got married after Dec. 20. Based on the state's decision, their status is now in limbo.
"Wherever individuals are in the process of availing themselves of state services related to same-sex marital status, that process is on hold and will stay exactly in that position until a final court decision is issued," Miller said.
Gay rights groups blasted the Utah government over the move, saying it denies couples "basic protections."
"Today's decision harms hundreds of Utah families and denies them the respect and basic protections that they deserve as legally married couples," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement. "Governor Herbert has once again planted himself firmly on the side of discrimination by preserving the second-class status he believes gay and lesbian Utahans merit."
The impact of the announcement Wednesday is complicated.
According to the email from Miller, couples who already made a particular change in the state system would not have that change reversed. He said that, for instance, any couple that changed their names on drivers' licenses would not have the licenses revoked. But, going forward, same-sex couples will not be able to make such changes because state agencies cannot recognize their marriage under the law.
That means married gay couples would also be frozen in their tracks if they try to file for taxes jointly or seek family health insurance coverage.
The state has been in a scramble ever since U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled that the same-sex marriage ban violated gay couples' constitutional rights.
The state is appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and won a stay on Shelby's decision earlier this week. The state argued that Shelby's "unlawful injunction" interferes with Utah's enforcement of its own laws.