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US to recognize Utah same-sex marriages

Chris Serrano (left) and Clifton Webb embraced after being married in Salt Lake City in December.

Kim Raff/AP File

Chris Serrano (left) and Clifton Webb embraced after being married in Salt Lake City in December.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday extended federal recognition to the marriages of more than 1,000 same-sex couples in Utah that took place before the Supreme Court put those unions in the state on hold.

Holder’s action will enable the government to extend eligibility for federal benefits to these couples.

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The attorney general said the families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their benefits while courts decide the issue of same-sex marriage in Utah.

Neither Utah Gov. Gary Herbert nor Attorney General Sean Reyes had immediate comment on Holder’s announcement.

More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples took home marriage licenses from local clerks after a federal judge overturned Utah’s same-sex marriage ban on Dec. 20. Utah voters approved the ban in 2004.

On Monday, the US Supreme Court put a halt to same-sex marriages in Utah while the Denver-based 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals considers the long-term question of whether gay couples have a right to marry in Utah.

‘‘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 are in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages,’’ Holder said in a video on the Justice Department’s website.

The attorney general said 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.’’

Among same-sex couples in Utah, Holder’s declaration was greeted with applause

‘‘It gives me hope moving forward in the appeals process,’’ Moudi Sbeity said. ‘‘It shows that there really is a social and cultural shift in viewpoints and mindsets toward marriage equality.’’

Sbeity and partner Derek Kitchen are among three couples who brought the Utah lawsuit that led to the surprise Dec. 20 ruling by US District Judge Robert Shelby, who said the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violated gay and lesbian couples’ constitutional rights.

Sbeity said he hopes Holder’s declaration will persuade Herbert to shift the state’s position. ‘‘I'm sure he doesn’t want 1,300 lawsuits on his desk,’’ Sbeity said.

Several hundred same-sex marriage supporters were planning a rally at the Utah State Capitol on Friday afternoon. Organizers planned to deliver a petition to the governor and state attorney general asking them to let the federal judge’s ruling stand and allow gay marriages to continue.

Tim Wagner of Salt Lake City, one of the organizers of the rally said Holder’s announcement was ‘‘pretty amazing’’ and a great thing for the newly-married couples.

‘‘It sounds like our national attorney general actually sees the law in the way it should be acknowledged,’’ Wagner said. ‘‘The law is on the side of rights and the people who want to love the people they love.’’

On Thursday, the Utah attorney general issued legal advice to local clerks, advising them to finish paperwork for same-sex marriages completed before the Supreme Court issued a temporary halt.

Reyes’ new advice was issued to clear up some confusion and only applies to marriages that were solemnized, said his spokeswoman, Missy Larsen.

‘‘As long as the marital ceremony happened prior to the stay, then the marriage can receive documentation,’’ Larsen said.

The attorney general’s office said Thursday’s guidance was not a decision on whether the marriages are valid.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group, said, ‘‘This is only the beginning of this fight, and this work continues until marriage equality returns to Utah for good.’’

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Yost reported from Washington, D.C.

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