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Can a state void hundreds of once-legal marriages? That’s the question in Utah’s latest same-sex case

In this Dec. 20, 2013 file photo, Chris Serrano, left, and Clifton Webb embrace after being married, as people wait in line to get licenses outside of the marriage division of the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office. (AP Photo/Kim Raff)

Does a state have the authority to undo marriages that were lawful when they took place?

That’s the question raised by four same-sex couples who married in Utah during the brief time the state’s gay marriage ban was lifted.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal judge to force the state to recognize these unions on Wednesday, arguing that putting these couples’ marriages on hold while the case is being hashed out in an appeals court violates their constitutional rights.

The four represent more than 1,200 others who got married during a 17-day period in December and January between the time a U.S. district court struck down the state’s Amendment 3, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and the date the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the ruling. That’s when the couples sued the state, arguing that by postponing recognition of their marriages in the meantime, the state has put the families in legal limbo. The complaint said:

“For example, they may be unable to obtain health insurance for their spouses and children, will not be able to make medical decisions about their spouses and family members if the need arises, may not complete stepparent adoptions to protect their families, and if the biological parent of their child or children dies, may not be able to retain custody of their children, who may be placed into foster care.”

One of the couples, Matthew Barraza and Tony Milner, told Fox News that they were in the midst of an adoption when the state backtracked on its decision to recognize their marriage.

On Wednesday, lawyers for Utah argued before U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball that same-sex couples did not retain their rights after the ruling was stayed, and defended the decision to put the marriages on hold, saying couples who tied the knot during that short time knew the state would challenge it.

The Salt Lake Tribune quoted ACLU attorney Joshua Block as saying that revoking these once legal unions would be unprecedented:

“That institution, once created, has special constitutional protections,” he said.

Assistant Utah attorney general Joni Jones argued that the state is not planning to undo the unions; it’s simply withholding recognition until Amendment 3 is settled. But, she said, the unions would be void if the same-sex marriage ruling is overturned, Deseret News reported.

“There’s no question this is an emotional issue. But the state is constantly trying to take a position to respect their rights and respect the legal process,” she said.

For now, it’s unclear when the judge might issue a ruling, meaning that for the time being the question posed in Utah remains unanswered.

“This is not a philosophical or esoteric legal argument,” Barraza told Fox News. “This is our lives.”

Lindsey Bever is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. Tweet her: @lindseybever

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