Fed. Govt. to Recognize Utah Gay Marriages

By Brett Snider, Esq. on January 10, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Justice Department announced Friday that it would legally recognize gay marriages performed in Utah, despite the state of Utah's refusal to do the same.

Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the "federal government would grant federal marriage benefits" to more than 1,300 gay and lesbian couples who rushed to be married in Utah following a landmark federal court decision that cleared the way for same-sex nuptials in the state, reports The New York Times.

While this may be cause to rejoice for same-sex newlyweds in Utah, it may have lasting implications for the national picture of marriage.

Utah Says Hold On; Feds Say No

Judge Robert J. Shelby struck down Utah's gay marriage ban December 20, and more than 1,300 same-sex couples obtained marriage licenses from the Beehive State. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday put his ruling on hold.

Since Judge Shelby's ruling (and even after the Supreme Court stay), Utah citizens -- especially the recently married ones -- have been uncertain about the legal status of these same-sex marriages. Many believed, as happened in California, that those who were married in the "rush to the courthouse" were still lawfully married while the Utah case was in limbo.

The state of Utah attempted to clarify the issue, announcing Wednesday that it would not recognize gay marriages performed after Judge Shelby's ruling, reports the Times.

In response, the federal government will ensure that "every federal benefit" available to married couples in the United States is provided to same-sex couples married in Utah.

Federalism and DOMA

When the U.S. Supreme Court took on the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), it determined that while states can deny recognition of same-sex marriages, the federal government cannot. So while gay couples can only obtain marriage licenses in states which allow gay marriage, their decision to move to other states which did not recognize their marriage would not affect their federal marriage benefits.

This decision left intact the delicate balance of power between the states and federal government -- federalism.

However, the Obama administration's actions Friday may have tipped the balance. If the federal government can honor marriages that the issuing state (Utah) does not, it arguably seems to give the federal government the power to marry -- which is reserved to the states.

Perhaps this will force the federal courts or Congress to come answer the question of gay marriage for the entire country.

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