Federal Government Will Recognize Utah Same-Sex Marriages

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com January 10 2014 1:41 PM ET

The U.S. government will recognize as valid the unions of 1,360 same-sex couples who married in Utah during the 17 days such marriages legal, attorney general Eric Holder announced today. Holder cited the landmark June ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor, which found that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to equal protection and treatment under the law. 

Same-sex couples who were married in Utah between December 20, when a federal judge ruled the state's voter-approved ban on marriage equality unconstitutional, and Monday, when the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay on that ruling, can file joint federal taxes and are entitled to all federal benefits granted to married couples, The New York Times reports

"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 video posted to the Justice Department's website. "These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds."

But it remains unclear whether the state of Utah itself will ultimately recognize those families. On Wednesday, a statement from Utah governor Gary Herbert said that "state recognition of same-sex marital status is ON HOLD until further notice," expressly leaving the ultimate determination of validity up to federal courts. 

But today, a memo from Utah's attorney general directed county clerks to issue marriage licenses to those couples who had applied for them and had their union solemnized before the Supreme Court enacted its stay on Monday. 

"Based on our analysis of Utah law, the marriages were recognized at the time the ceremony was completed," wrote Utah attorney general Sean Reyes, according to Equality on Trial. "While the validity of the marriages in question must ultimately be decided by the legal appeals process presently working its way through the courts, the act of completing and providing a marriage certificate for all couples whose marriage was performed prior to the morning of January 6, 2014, is administrative and consistent with Utah law. Therefore, it is recommended that county clerks provide marriage certificates to all persons whose marriages were solemnized during this period as an administrative function and not a legal function. This would allow, for instance, same-sex couples who solemnized their marriage prior to the stay to have proper documentation in states that recognize same-sex marriage."

As Reyes noted, today's memo does not clarify the legal status of the more than 1,300 same-sex marriages that took place in Utah, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah to seek plaintiffs in a lawsuit intended to force the state to recognize the marriages that took place during the state's 17-day equality window. 

The Human Rights Campaign's president, Chad Griffin, wrote a letter to U.S. attorney general Holder earlier this week urging the federal Justice Department to recognize the marriages. Griffin applauded today's announcement. 

"These 1,360 Utah couples are married, plain and simple, and they should be afforded every right and responsibility of marriage," said Griffin in a statement issued Friday. "Attorney General Eric Holder has once again shown the kind of leadership that earns you a spot in the history books. This is only the beginning of this fight, and this work continues until marriage equality returns to Utah for good, and full equality reaches every American in all 50 states."