SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The Justice Department announced Friday it will recognize — for federal purposes — same-sex marriages performed for a short period in Utah.
The state on Wednesday said it would not recognize the approximately 1,000 marriages or marriage licenses issued for gay and lesbian couples, at least until the issue is fully resolved in the courts.
“These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a videotaped message.
“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,” he added.
The federal government’s decision will likely create more legal chaos over the constitutionality of same-sex marriage that is playing out in Utah, and several other states.
The Supreme Court last year said gay and lesbian couples legally married in their states were entitled to the same federal benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex partners.
The office of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert had sent a letter to Cabinet officials Wednesday saying that, based on advice from the state’s attorney general, “state recognition of same-sex marital status is on hold until further notice.
“Please understand this position is not intended to comment on the legal status of those same-sex marriages — that is for the courts to decide,” the governor’s chief of staff, Derek Miller, wrote. “The intent of this communication is to direct state agency compliance with current laws that prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex marriages.”
The current legal and political fight erupted December 20 when U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby concluded Utah’s law banning same-sex marriage, approved in 2004, conflicted with the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process. That prompted many counties to begin issuing marriage licenses, but the state then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The justices on Monday blocked enforcement of the district court ruling until the constitutional questions are fully resolved. A federal appeals court could hold oral arguments as soon as March. A ruling there could affect all states within the court’s jurisdiction: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.
But 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.”