Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. intervened in the legal battle over gay marriage in Utah on Friday and announced that same-sex marriages that took place in Utah are considered legal under federal law even though state officials will not recognize those unions.
In a videotaped announcement, Holder said that although a recent administrative step by the Supreme Court “cast doubt” on same-sex marriages performed in Utah, those couples are still eligible for all federal benefits.
“These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds,” Holder said. “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 are in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages. And we will continue to provide additional information as soon as it becomes available.”
Holder said that the Justice Department has been working since June to implement the Supreme Court’s 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. The ruling required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages from states where they are legal.
“This ruling marked a historic step toward equality for all American families,” Holder said. “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.”
Legally married couples are entitled to a number of federal benefits, including the ability to jointly file their federal income taxes.
In its historic decision, however, the Supreme Court did not address the fundamental question of whether state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
On Dec. 20, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby in Salt Lake City ruled that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the guarantee of equal protection and due process under the Constitution. More than 1,300 same-sex couples rushed to get married in the 17 days that followed.
“These 1,360 Utah couples are married, plain and simple, and they should be afforded every right and responsibility of marriage,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization.
On Jan. 6., the Supreme Court halted Utah’s same-sex marriages, staying Shelby’s decision pending appeal and putting the marriages in legal limbo. On Wednesday, Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert’s office sent a memo to state officials saying Utah would not consider same-sex marriages lawful, as it appealed Shelby’s ruling.
But on Thursday, Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes paved the way for Holder’s announcement by telling all Utah county attorneys and clerks that the same-sex marriages that took place between Dec. 20 and Jan. 6 were recognized as legal at the time of the ceremony. Reyes recommended that clerks provide marriage certificates to all couples married during that period, saying that this would allow same-sex couples to have proper documentation in states that do recognize same-sex marriage.
Herbert (R) said Friday he was not surprised by Holder’s announcement. Utah will continue providing federal services to same-sex couples, Herbert indicated in a statement. But he added that “state agencies are directed and will continue to comply with state laws when providing state services.”
While civil rights groups applauded Holder’s actions, the National Organization for Marriage, a group that works against the legalization of same-sex marriage, criticized the Obama administration for having “no regard for the Constitution and the rule of law.”
“It is outrageous that the Justice Department would move so brazenly and publicly to undermine Utah’s standing constitutional provision regulating marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” said Brian Brown, NOM’s president. “It is the right of the states to determine marriage, and the voters and legislature of Utah have done just that.”
The socially conservative state’s large Mormon population is particularly opposed to homosexuality. About three-fifths of Utah’s residents are Mormon, according to a Pew Religion and Public Life survey, and nearly two in three Mormons in 2011 said society should discourage homosexuality, while about one in three of the overall United States said so, a Pew poll found.
Equal rights for same-sex couples has been a high priority for Holder. Officials close to the attorney general said he felt vindicated by the Supreme Court’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) decision after a long and sometimes contentious debate in the Justice Department about how to deal with the law that had denied federal benefits to gay men and lesbians.
Three years ago, Holder had overruled key department lawyers, including the acting solicitor general who argued that Justice should continue defending the 1996 DOMA, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, on constitutional grounds. The Justice Department has a long-standing tradition of defending congressional statutes despite the president’s political views.
In a 2011 letter to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Holder said that he and President Obama had determined after an extensive review that DOMA was unconstitutional.