WASHINGTON – Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday the federal government will recognize more than 1,000 same-sex marriages in Utah, despite an earlier announcement this week from the state’s governor saying the state would not.
The decision means those Utah couples will have access to federal benefits that are available to married couples in other states, including the ability to file joint tax returns. It also adds to the confusion in the state following a surprise ruling last month against the state's same-sex marriage ban.
Hundreds of gay couples got married before another court put those weddings on hold. The Justice Department statement marked the first time the Obama administration formally weighed in on the debate with any action.
“Recently, an administrative step by the Court has cast doubt on same-sex marriages that have been performed in the state of Utah. And the governor has announced that the state will not recognize these marriages pending additional Court action,” Holder said. “In the meantime, I am confirming today that, for purposes of federal law, these marriages will be recognized as lawful and considered eligible for all relevant federal benefits on the same terms as other same-sex marriages.”
He added: “These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds. In the days ahead, we will continue to coordinate across the federal government to ensure the timely provision of every federal benefit to which Utah couples and couples throughout the country are entitled - regardless of whether they in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages.”
The National Organization for Marriage condemned the government's stance.
"With this move, the Department of Justice under this administration signals that it simply has no regard for the Constitution and the rule of law," NOM President Brian Brown said in a written statement.
On Wednesday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said that the state will not recognize same-sex marriages performed since last month, leaving gay couples in the lurch amid the raging court battle.
The directive from Herbert's office came 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.