The Obama administration said today it will recognize hundreds of same-sex marriages in Utah that were performed after a federal judge struck down the state's ban but before the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the judge's decision pending appeal.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced that for purposes of federal law, the marriages will be "recognized as lawful and considered eligible for all relevant federal benefits on the same terms as other same-sex marriages."
The Supreme Court's temporary block, allowing Utah to fight the ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, cast doubt on those marriages, Holder said in a statement. Utah's governor said the state will not recognize the marriages, Holder noted.
"These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds," Holder said today.
Holder cited the Supreme Court's decision in June in United States v. Windsor, where a 5-4 majority led by Justice Anthony Kennedy struck down the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman in the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
"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."
Holder said the Department of Justice will 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."
Constitutional law experts almost immediately began assessing the Obama administration's decision regarding Utah same-sex marriages.
Cornell University Law School professor Michael Dorf explored whether the federal government has the authority to recognize marriages that a state does not recognize.
"I think the fact that the Utah government and the federal government reached different conclusions about the validity of the interim marriages pendente lite underscores my view, expressed on the blog on Tuesday, that the SCOTUS order was (irresponsibly) ambiguous on the validity of those marriages," Dorf wrote.