Utah's battle over gay marriage seems unlikely to end soon with both sides getting reinforcements from Washington as the courts struggle to get ahead of the political battle.
With backing from President Obama, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday ruled that same-sex couples married in Utah over the past two weeks would be eligible for federal benefits, even as the Supreme Court was putting a stay on further gay weddings until challenges to a lower court ruling could be heard. Mr. Holder's move, in turn, led two Republican congressman to criticize the attorney general, saying the nation's highest law enforcement officer was himself showing "disrespect" for the rule of law.
Mr. Holder said Friday that he was "confirming," for purposes of federal law, that the same-sex marriages recently conducted in Utah "will be recognized as lawful and considered eligible for all relevant federal benefits."
Some 1,000 couples were married since Dec. 20, when a federal judge struck down Utah's voter-passed constitutional amendment that only permits marriages of one man and one woman.
The ruling made one of the nation's most socially conservative states the unlikely latest battleground in the state-level fight over gay marriage. Supporters of traditional marriage say the Utah court ruling violates the spirit of the Supreme Court's landmark gay rights rulings in the summer of 2012, which struck down a federal statute against gay marriage but was widely seen as allowing each state to set its own rules on whether to allow same-sex unions.
On Jan. 6, the Supreme Court put a stay on the lower-court ruling until the matter is fully decided. Utah state officials quickly announced that both the performing of same-sex marriages and recognition of such marriages would cease while the appeals process is underway.
Mr. Holder said in his announcement that although the high court's stay "cast doubt" on the gay marriages in Utah, those families "should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds." White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that Mr. Obama backed his attorney general's ruling.
According to the Supreme Court's June ruling in United States v. Windsor, Americans in same-sex marriages "are entitled to equal protection and equal treatment under the law," he 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."
Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which supports gay marriage, said Mr. Holder's announcement was "lawful, predictable and correct."
The Utah same-sex couples "are as married as any couple on the planet," he said.
But Republican Reps. Joseph R. Pitts of Pennsylvania and John Fleming of Louisiana accused the Justice Department of meddling in Utah. The administration "should have allowed the court to rule before making this decision," said Mr. Pitts.
"This is another example of the Obama administration's disrespect for the rule of the law," said Mr. Fleming. "States must be permitted to not recognize same-sex marriage, if they so choose, without being trampled on by federal courts and the Obama administration."
Separately, Mr. Pitts and Mr. Fleming have been joined by more than two dozen lawmakers in introducing a bill in the House to require the federal government to respect states' rights to set marriage and domestic-relations laws.
"I drafted the State Marriage Defense Act of 2014 to help restore the 10th Amendment" and "affirm the authority of states to define and regulate marriage," said Rep. Randy Weber, Texas Republican, and a primary author of the bill.
The bill requires the federal government to defer to the marriage laws in the state of a person's legal residence when determining their marital status for federal purposes.
In the Windsor case, the Supreme Court overturned a part of the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented the federal government from recognizing gay marriages.
But the same court ruling "reaffirmed" the authority of the states to define marriage, and required the federal government to recognize "state sovereign choices about who may be married" when determining marital status, according to the bill.
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