WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday said it would recognize as lawful the marriages of 1,300 same-sex couples in Utah, even though the state government is refusing to do so.
Wading into the fast-moving legal battle over same-sex marriage rights in one of America’s most socially conservative states, the administration posted a video on the Justice Department’s website making the announcement. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the federal government would grant federal marriage benefits to the same-sex couples who rushed to obtain marriage licenses after a federal judge last month unexpectedly struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage.
“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,” Holder said in the video. “These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds.”
The Justice Department’s intervention added a further sense of whiplash to the highly charged dispute, which began on Dec. 20 when a US District Court judge, Robert J. Shelby, ruled that Utah’s constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman violated the federal Constitution. As same-sex couples flooded county clerk’s offices in Utah, the state government asked a higher court to block the order while it appealed the ruling, but a federal appeals court declined to do so, and the marriages continued. On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a stay, bringing a halt to further same-sex marriages while the litigation continues. That decision effectively left those same-sex couples in legal limbo.
Then, on Wednesday, the office of the governor of Utah, Gary R. Herbert, said the state would not recognize as lawful the same-sex marriages already licensed while it pressed forward with its appeal of the ruling.
“The original laws governing marriage in Utah return to effect pending final resolution by the courts,” Derek Miller, the chief of staff to Herbert, wrote in a memo to state officials. “It is important to understand that those laws include not only a prohibition of performing same-sex marriages but also recognizing same-sex marriages.”
But Holder said the federal government would not do likewise. He invoked as a historic call for equality a June ruling by the Supreme Court that struck down a ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriages that are legal under state law, saying the Justice Department was “working tirelessly to implement it in both letter and spirit.”
“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. “And we will continue to provide additional information as soon as it becomes available.”
A variety of federal benefits are accorded to legally married couples, including being able to file jointly for federal income taxes; exemption from estate taxes, and eligibility for some Social Security claims if one spouse dies; eligibility for health and life insurance for spouses of federal employees; the ability to sponsor a spouse who is not a US citizen for a family-based immigration visa; and eligibility for survivor benefits for spouses of soldiers and diplomats.