LGBT legal activists applauded an announcement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Friday that the federal government will recognize marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in Utah despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court put a stay on enforcement of the district court decision that allowed those couples to marry.

“It was the right call,” said Mary Bonauto, Civil Rights Project Director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. “The U.S. is obliged to follow its laws and rules about treating married people alike and these marriages occurred in conformity with law.”

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the Holder decision was “extremely important for these couples and their families, and means they will have the full protection of all federal benefits.”

“The federal government has already stated that it will recognize legally married same-sex couples, regardless of whether their state of residence does so,” said Minter. Minter was referring to the announcements following the Supreme Court ruling in June in U.S. v. Windsor, that most federal agencies would recognize marriage licenses obtained by same-sex couples even if the licenses were obtained outside the couples’ states of residence.

In his January 10 press release, Attorney General Holder noted that an “administrative step” by the Supreme Court “cast doubt” on the marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in Utah, adding that Utah Governor Gary Herbert has announced “the state will not recognize these marriages pending additional court action.”

“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 Holder. “These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds.”

“In the days ahead,” added Holder, “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 are in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages.  And we will continue to provide additional information as soon as it becomes available.”

Camilla Taylor, head of Lambda Legal’s Marriage Project, said the Supreme Court’s order “merely stayed the further issuance of marriage licenses” and “did not in any way affect the validity of marriage licenses that previously were issued – these licenses were validly issued, and remain valid.”

“In fact, even the Utah Attorney General’s office itself admits that these marriages may well be valid,” said Taylor. “Consequently, DOJ reached the only conclusion it could, given Windsor – that it must respect these marriages for purposes of federal benefits, protections, rights, and responsibilities.”

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes issued a statement January 8 saying that he was “unable to reach a legal conclusion as to the ultimate validity of marriage between persons of the same sex who completed their marriage ceremony in Utah between December 20, 2013, and January 6, 2014.”

“That question,” said Reyes, “remains unanswered and the answer will depend on the result of the appeal process.”

On several occasions before, same-sex couples have been able to obtain marriage licenses only to have them declared invalid at a later date. That happened most notably in San Francisco after then Mayor Gavin Newsom directed city clerk in February 2004 to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples even though a state law prohibited them at the time. The California Supreme Court later invalidated those marriages.

But GLAD’s Bonauto said Holder’s action is “very different than the one in California.”

“In that case, the mayor decided to deviate from existing law in California,” said Bonauto. “Here,” she said, the Supreme Court “has already put the federal government on notice not to discriminate” against same-sex married couples.

“And there are legally married couples in Utah,” she said. “It’s entirely different.”

One organization opposed to same-sex marriage was quick to characterize Holder’s move as overreaching executive branch authority.

“The Justice Department's edict today expressly contradicts the determination of Utah's Governor and Attorney General, and represents one of the most significant overreaches of federal authority imaginable," said Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage.

But other groups were quiet, at least so far.           

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