(Photo: Screenshot via Department of Justice)
The Department of Justice announced Friday that it will recognize the same-sex marriages that were legalized in Utah since the Dec. 20 ruling that overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage. The National Organization for Marriage has called the federal government's decision "outrageous," saying it signals the Obama administration has 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.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a videotaped message released Friday that the same-sex marriages will be recognized for federal purposes. "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 in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages," he added. The Department of State's decision is in accordance with the June Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, thus awarding federal benefits to same-sex couples.
Holder clarified that the federal government will recognize the Utah marriages while the state continues with the appeals process in the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "In the meantime, 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."
Utah was thrown into a frenzy of litigation on Dec. 20 when, in a surprise ruling, District Judge Robert J. Shelby determined that the state's 2004 ban against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
Immediately following his ruling, hundreds of same-sex couples in the state flocked to their local county clerk to receive marriage licenses. Meanwhile, the state frantically requested a hold on same-sex marriage while it appeals Shelby's ruling. Ultimately, on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Utah a hold on distributing same-sex marriage licenses while the state's appeals process makes its way through courts.
The fate of the 1,300 same-sex couples who did marry from Dec. 20 to Jan. 6 remained in limbo following Monday's Supreme Court order.
On Wednesday, Utah Governor Gary Herbert's office announced that the state would not recognize the same-sex marriages that had been legalized in the past few weeks.
"… state recognition of same-sex marital status is on hold until further notice," Derek Miller, the governor's chief of staff, wrote in a statement.
"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," he continued. "The intent of this communication is to direct state agency compliance with current laws that prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex marriages."
Gov. Herbert's announcement prompted the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, to request the federal government to recognize the state's same-sex marriages. "… there is simply no reason for the United States government not to extend federal recognition to these more than 1,300 couples," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a letter to Attorney General Holder.
The group wrote a separate letter addressed to the attorneys general of the 17 states where same-sex unions are legal to also recognize Utah's same-sex marriages.
Following Holder's announcement, the HRC released a statement thanking him for complying with their request. "Attorney General Eric Holder has once again shown the kind of leadership that earns you a spot in the history books. This is only the beginning of this fight, and this work continues until marriage equality returns to Utah for good, and full equality reaches every American in all 50 states."
The National Organization for Marriage, a group opposing same-sex marriage, opposed Holder's move in a statement Friday.
"It is the right of states to determine marriage, and the voters and legislature of Utah have done just that. Their right to do so is encoded in the U.S. Constitution, and was explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court this summer in the Windsor decision. But with this move, the Department of Justice under this Administration signals that it simply has no regard for the Constitution and the rule of law."
Utah's appeal against Shelby's ruling will now make its way through Denver's 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and oral arguments could be heard as early as March. A ruling could affect all states within the federal court's jurisdiction, including Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.