Within the past month, the eyes of the nation have focused on developments in Utah regarding the validity of same-sex marriage in that state, which are likely to have a major impact across the country. Shortly before Christmas, a federal judge struck down the State’s ban on same-sex marriage, finding that it violated the due process and equal protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution. Immediately thereafter, Utah began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and more than 1,000 same-sex marriages were performed during a nearly three-week period until the United States Supreme Court ordered that the lower court’s ruling be stayed pending resolution of the matter by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The High Court’s ruling, however, raised the question of whether these marriages would be recognized as valid.
The latest chapter in this saga occurred at the end of last week, when the Obama administration announced that the federal government will recognize the marriages performed in Utah during that interim period. In responding to Utah’s ordering of its state offices to refrain from any actions acknowledging the same-sex marriages that were performed, United States Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed 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,” noting that “[t]hese families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds.”
According to Holder, the position of the federal government comports with the Supreme Court’s historic decision this past June in United States v. Windsor, wherein the Court invalidated provisions in the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) which had barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages. In Windsor, the Court relied upon principles of equal protection and due process to require the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages from states where such marriages are legal. The Court, however, did not squarely address whether state bans on same-sex marriage are also unconstitutional. Some observers believe that Holder’s announcement that the federal government will recognize the Utah marriages signals that the Administration may be moving toward challenging state governments which refuse to recognize the validity of same-sex marriages, pitting protection of individual rights against the rights of states to define marriage.
The Administration’s decision opens up more than 1,000 federal benefits to the Utah couples, including the ability to file joint federal income tax returns. Although Utah has pledged to treat the same-sex couples as married when it is administering federal benefits, it will not recognize them as married when considering state benefits.