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 Barack Obama’s self-described evolution on same-sex marriage rights, 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 U.S. District Court judge unexpectedly struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriages last month, before the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the ruling 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 U.S. 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 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.