U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

The Justice Department announced that the more than 1,300 same-sex couples who married in Utah are legally married in the eyes of the federal government. “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,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds.” His decision comes days after Gov. Gary Herbert declared these unions would not be recognized at the state level. Holder’s action is as welcome as it is expected.

In 2011, President Obama and Holder decided that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional and refused to defend the discriminatory statute against legal challenge. And since DOMA was thrown out by the Supreme Court last June, the Obama administration has moved quickly to extend federal recognition to legally married same-sex couples across the country.

So the Justice Department’s announcement on Utah should come as no surprise. Still, it stands in stark contest to what Herbert is doing. Rather than recognize those legally married same-sex couples, the governor put  them “on hold” while he appeals the Dec. 20 decision that overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage.

Based on counsel from the Attorney General’s Office regarding the Supreme Court decision, state recognition of same-sex marital status is ON HOLD until further notice. Please understand this position is not intended to comment on the legal status of those same-sex marriages — that is for the courts to decide. The intent of this communication is to direct state agency compliance with current laws that prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex marriages.

The hollowing out of the legal recognition of those same-sex married couples is a comment on them. A damnable one, to be clear. But the fact that Utah is in this legal thicket is a serious issue. On the one hand, I get it. The Supreme Court decision to stay the lower court ruling means that same-sex marriage is again prohibited in Utah. Yet there are 1,300 gay and lesbian couples that legally married in the 17 days marriage equality reigned in the Beehive State. Surely, there is a moral case to be made for grandfathering in those folks.

I’ve wondered why U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby didn’t follow the California lead of legalizing gay marriage but staying the decision until the inevitable appeal was filed by the state. What really mystifies me is that the state wasn’t ready to file for a stay of Shelby’s decision. It’s as if they didn’t think there were gay people in Utah who desperately wanted to get married.

Well, the state knows now. And as aggravating as the state’s decision to not recognize those marriages is, I’m still convinced that the situation in Utah is not a bad thing. More lawsuits are guaranteed demanding equal protection under the law in every state in the union. That’s what’s needed to get the Supreme Court to rule in favor of a constitutional right to marry once and for all.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.