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Topics In the News
Federal Government to Recognize Utah Same-sex Marriages
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 01/10/14
Last updated on: 01/10/14
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Attorney General Eric Holder.

On January 10, 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government will recognize the 1360 same-sex marriages performed in Utah following the historic ruling by Judge Robert Shelby on December 20, 2013 that declared the state's marriage ban unconstitutional. On January 6, 2014, the Supreme Court stayed Shelby's ruling pending an appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and Utah officials subsequently announced that they would not recognize the marriages for state purposes. Holder's announcement both asserts the federal government's position that the marriages are valid and reiterates the Obama administration's unwavering support for marriage equality.

As Charlie Savage reports in the New York Times, the Justice Department's intervention has added "a further sense of whiplash to the highly charged dispute" that has created confusion for the 1360 couples whose marriages may rest in limbo until the Tenth Circuit and perhaps even the U.S. Supreme Court issues rulings.

Most significantly, the Justice Department's decision means that the couples will be able to access a wide variety of federal benefits including the ability to file jointly for federal income taxes; exemption from estate taxes and eligibility for some Social Security claims if one spouse dies; eligibility for health and life insurance for spouses of federal employees; the ability to sponsor a spouse who is not a United States citizen for a family-based immigration visa; and eligibility for survivor benefits for spouses of soldiers and diplomats.

In his statement, Attorney General Holder evoked the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Windsor last June, which invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act and held that Americans in same-sex marriages are entitled to equal protection and equal treatment under the law. He said that since the decision 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." Referring to the same-sex marriages performed in Utah, he said, "these marriages will be recognized as lawful and considered eligible for all relevant federal benefits on the same terms as other same-sex marriages. These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds."

In statements issued soon after the the Justice Department announcement, Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign and Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry hailed Attorney General Holder for evincing leadership in the struggle for equal rights.

Griffin said, "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."

Wolfson concurred. "The Attorney General's determination that the federal government must respect married same-sex couples in Utah as what they are--married--is lawful, predictable, and correct. Even though the 1000+ couples married in Utah are encountering unfair treatment and disrespect by their home state and the other remaining states that discriminate, these couples are as married as any couple on the planet. . . . We applaud the Attorney General and the Administration for their fidelity to the law, the freedom to marry, and the Constitution's command of equality."

The Attorney General's position confirms the Obama administration's deep commitment to marriage equality and to glbtq rights generally. Had Mitt Romney been elected President in 2012, he unquestionably would be in the vanguard of opposing equal rights and would unhesitatingly use the power of the federal government to deny recognition of same-sex couples.

Even as it is reassuring to know that President Obama's administration is committed to equal protection under the law, however, we must never forget that in more than half of the United States inequality prevails.

The Department of Justice issued the following video of Attorney General Holder's announcement.

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