U.S. to Recognize 1,300 Marriages Disputed by Utah

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WASHINGTON —
The Obama administration on Friday made the latest contribution to
a fast-moving legal battle over same-sex marriage rights as the
Justice Department said that the federal government would recognize
as lawful the marriages of some 1,300 same-sex couples in Utah even
though the state government is largely refusing to do so.
 

The announcement furthered President
Obama’s self-described evolution on same-sex marriage rights. He
was once a politician who said he was “not in favor of gay
marriage
” and repeatedly invoked
the rights of states to decide how marriage should be
defined
.  

More recently,
he said 
“I think same-sex couples should be able to get married
,”
and now his administration appears to be edging closer to
confronting a state government over its refusal to recognize such
rights. 

The statement also provided a new twist
in a fight that has pitted notions of individual equality against
the right of states to define marriage as a majority of their
voters see fit. It added to legal confusion surrounding the status
of couples who married in a brief window after a Federal District
Court judge unexpectedly
struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriages last month
,
before the Supreme Court stayed
the ruling
on Monday, effectively shutting down any
further same-sex nuptials in the state for the duration of the
litigation. 

“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,” said Attorney General
Eric H. Holder Jr. in an unusual video announcement on
the Justice Department website. “These families should not be asked
to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation
unfolds.” 

Same-sex couples in Utah had rushed to
marry after Dec. 20, when Judge Robert J. Shelby of Federal
District Court in Utah overturned the state’s voter-approved ban on
marriage for gay couples. Utah unsuccessfully petitioned two lower
courts to halt those weddings, then succeeded in persuading the
United States Supreme Court to issue a stay while the state
appeals.  

On Wednesday, Gov. Gary R. Herbert
announced that the ban, an amendment to the Utah Constitution, was
back in legal force while the litigation continued, something that
could take years. During that time, he said, the state would not
recognize or confer new marital benefits to those same-sex couples
who had married. 

But with
Friday’s announcement, same-sex couples in Utah who married will be
able to file joint federal income tax returns and will be eligible
for other spousal benefits, like health insurance for the families
of federal employees and the ability to sponsor a noncitizen spouse
for a family visa. 

Mr. Herbert’s
office issued a mild response, saying that the Justice Department’s
decision “comes as no surprise” and that state agencies would treat
such couples as married when they are administering federal, though
not state, benefits. No examples were
listed. 

“Adherence to the rule of law, both
federal and state as those laws govern respectively, is an
unbending principle of this administration,” the statement
said. 

Some groups opposed to same-sex
marriage denounced the Justice Department decision. Brian Brown,
the president of the National Organization for Marriage, said in
a
statement
that the move was “outrageous,” adding that
“the Department of Justice under this administration signals that
it simply has no regard for the Constitution and the rule of
law.” 

In Utah, gay couples and supporters of
same-sex marriage cheered the federal government’s move. Many were
disappointed and angered by the state’s decision not to recognize
their new marriages, and have argued that, despite the continuing
legal battle, their nuptials are just as valid as any other in
Utah. 

“It feels like a little victory after
the last couple days with our governor,” said Austin Vance, who
married his partner last month at the Salt Lake County clerk’s
office, with hundreds of other gay couples. “It definitely raises
spirits a little bit. It was disturbing that our governor would
make those assertions that we wouldn’t be
recognized.” 

“We’re going to continue to file and
act as if we’re married,” he added. “Some people have said that’s
an act of civil disobedience. If it is, so be
it.” 

Mr. Holder did not detail the
administration’s legal reasoning, although he invoked the “spirit”
of a ruling in June by the Supreme Court that struck
down a law banning federal recognition of same-sex
marriages
that states considered legal. That ruling ended
what had been the federal practice of distinguishing between
same-sex and opposite-sex married couples based on the federal
Defense of Marriage Act. 

The Obama
administration decision has created a kind of mirror image to that
situation: The federal government will treat two sets of Utah
couples equally, while their state will treat them
differently. 

Michael C. Dorf, a Cornell University
law professor, said it was unclear why the federal government’s
view could trump Utah’s. “I’m extremely sympathetic to the
pro-equality judgment underlying Holder’s statement, but I’m
dubious about the legal authority in light of the apparently
contrary decision by Utah,” Mr. Dorf said in an interview, although
he listed several
possible theories supporting the Justice Department’s action on his
legal blog

A Justice
Department official said that earlier this week, Mr. Holder
assigned Stuart F. Delery, the assistant attorney general for the
Civil Division, to study the legal options. Mr. Delery concluded
Friday morning that the federal government could recognize the
interim marriages as valid for the time being, the official
said. 

The administration’s theory appears to
be that even though Utah is not conferring any new benefits on
same-sex couples who married, the state has not taken steps to
indicate that it currently considers the marriages void, either.
For example, Utah has said it will not try to invalidate new
driver’s licenses that it already granted to gay or lesbian
newlyweds who changed their last names, or spousal health benefits
it already approved for same-sex spouses of state
employees. 

And on Thursday, Utah’s attorney
general, Sean D. Reyes, told
county clerks
to complete the administrative task of
mailing marriage certificates for same-sex couples “whose marriages
were solemnized” during the interim period, even though the state
“cannot currently legally recognize marriages other than those
between a man and a woman.” 

Mr. Reyes wrote
that one purpose of following through on issuing the certificates
is to allow such couples “to have proper documentation in states
that recognize same-sex marriage,” suggesting that the state
government believes that the certificates it issued to same-sex
couples may be considered valid by other
jurisdictions. 

Still, Utah
will not grant any new benefits for couples who had not yet applied
for them. That decision is likely to be challenged in court by
couples seeking to change their names, legally adopt their
children, get spousal health coverage, or file a joint income-tax
return with the state.  

Jeffrey Gomez,
for example, waited too long to change his name after marrying his
partner last month. 

“We missed that
little window,” he said Friday. “Everything has been so sudden and
so topsy-turvy.”


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