January 10, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
Obama admin to recognize Utah same-sex marriages
Eric Holder, United States Justice Department, Barack Obama Administration, Lincoln Memorial, the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, civil rights, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Friday the federal government will recognize Utah same-sex marriages (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Friday that the federal government will recognize the same-sex marriages performed in Utah despite the state’s decision not to recognize them in the aftermath of a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a video announcement, Holder says the federal government will recognize the marriages of the more than 1,300 couples estimated to have wed in the state, even though Utah Gov. Gary Herbert indicated a letter to staff earlier this week the state won’t recognize the unions pending appeal.

“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,” Holder says. “These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds.”

In the coming weeks, Holder pledges to coordinate with other branches of the federal government to ensure federal benefits are flowing to same-sex couples who wed 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 in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages,” Holder says. “And we will continue to provide additional information as soon as it becomes available.”

Same-sex couples began marrying in Utah starting on Dec. 20 after a ruling from U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, known as Amendment 3. After unsuccessful attempts with the district court and the U.S. Tenth Circuit, Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes obtained a stay on the marriages from the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

The next day, Utah announced it wouldn’t recognize the same-sex marriages that were already performed in the state prior to the stay. However, there was still a question about whether the federal government would recognize the unions. In a letter to Holder on Thursday, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said there’s “no legal reason” why the marriages shouldn’t be recognized and Utah did so out of political reasons.

In a statement following the announcement, Griffin praised Holder for deciding the Utah same-sex marriages should be recognized.

“These 1,360 Utah couples are married, plain and simple, and they should be afforded every right and responsibility of marriage,” Griffin said. “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.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during his routine news conference on Friday that President Obama “welcomes” the decision by the Justice Department.

“I can tell you the president welcomes the attorney general’s determination that the federal government, for purposes of federal law will recognize the same-sex marriages that were lawfully performed in Utah before a stay was issued,” Carney said.

Asked by the Blade about the extent to which Obama was involved in reaching the decision, Carney said he doesn’t believe the president spoke with Holder about the matter prior to the resolution.

“The president simply welcomes the decision,” Carney said. “This is action and determination taken by, and done by, the attorney general. The president obviously has expressed his views publicly about same-sex marriage, and the need for equal rights for all Americans, so I don’t know, but I don’t think they discussed this specific issue. This was a determination by the AG.”

But anti-gay advocates aren’t pleased the decision and are saying it’s an affront to Utah’s right to regulate marriage.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the decision is “an effort to make law in the breach and shows contempt for the states, the federal courts, and Congress.”

“It only adds to the administrative chaos by flouting Utah’s marriage law and is in contrast to the U.S. Supreme Court’s cautious approach in granting a stay in the case,” Perkins said. “The Department of Justice’s announcement is doing the very thing which the Supreme Court condemned in the U.S. vs. Windsor decision — ‘creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State.’”

The Utah attorney general isn’t expressing any dissatisfaction with the decision from the federal government. Ryan Bruckman, a Reyes spokesperson, said the state has no objections.

“The statement put forth by Attorney General Eric Holder is consistent with previous statements from the Utah Attorney General’s Office.” Bruckman said.

The Obama administration is able to recognize the same-sex marriages in Utah in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. Since ruling against the law, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage, the Obama administration has been implementing federal benefits for same-sex unions.

Read Holder’s full remarks here:

Last June, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision – in United States v. Windsor – holding that Americans in same-sex marriages are entitled to equal protection and equal treatment under the law. This ruling marked a historic step toward equality for all American families. And since the day it was handed down, the Department of Justice has been working tirelessly to implement it in both letter and spirit – moving to extend — federal benefits to married same-sex couples as swiftly and smoothly as possible.

Recently, an administrative step by the Court has cast doubt on same-sex marriages that have been performed in the state of Utah. And the governor has announced that the state will not recognize these marriages pending additional Court action.

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. These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds. 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. And we will continue to provide additional information as soon as it becomes available.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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