WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the three weeks since a federal judge told Utah gays they had a constitutional right to marry, the issue of whether such a right exists in the state has pingponged from a federal appeals court to the U.S. Supreme Court, the state attorney general, the governor and, Friday, the U.S. attorney general.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that the federal government would recognize the more than 1,300 same-sex marriages that took place in Utah during the past three weeks, meaning those couples will be able to file joint federal tax returns and be eligible for hundreds of other legal rights and obligations.
“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 a videotaped statement. “These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds.”
His pronouncement was the latest in a contradictory series that, as one gay marriage advocate put it, leaves married gay couples in Utah in a kind of “purgatory” that is likely to last several years.
A federal district court judge ruled Dec. 20 that the state ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. He declined to delay the implementation of his ruling while it was appealed, opening the door to surprised couples who had not expected a marriage opportunity so soon in a conservative state like Utah.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver also declined to stop the marriages during the state’s appeal. But the U.S. Supreme Court halted them at least until the 10th Circuit rules.
Since then, state and federal officials have scrambled to decide how to treat about 2,600 people who now have Utah marriage licenses.
On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert told state agencies not to recognize the marriages, even though his newly appointed attorney general, Sean Reyes, said his office was not sure whether the marriages were valid.
Holder’s action means that the couples will be treated as married in the eyes of the federal government. They will be eligible for some Social Security and survivor benefits, and those who receive benefits for one spouse through the other’s employer may not have to pay federal payroll taxes on them. Federal employees in same-sex marriages in Utah will be eligible for health and life insurance benefits.
But the governor’s action means the couples will have to file individual state tax returns and may have difficulty with adoptions, welfare and Medicaid benefits.
Brian Moulton, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, praised Holder’s decision. “The actions of the governor have been incredibly challenging for these families,” he said. “They obtained valid marriage licenses from the county clerk just like anybody else. Now they will be put on hold for who knows how long.”
The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, condemned Holder’s decision. “It is outrageous that the Justice Department would move so brazenly and publicly to undermine Utah’s standing constitutional provision regulating marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” said Brian Brown, the group’s president.