WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration said Friday it will recognize same-sex marriages in Utah - even though the state will not do so - and will provide federal benefits to about 1,400 gay couples who wed there before the Supreme Court halted the nuptials this week.
President Barack Obama's Justice Department took the step two days after Gary Herbert, the Republican governor of the conservative, predominantly Mormon state, said Utah would not recognize, at least for now, the marriages of gay couples who rushed to wed after a federal judge's December 20 ruling briefly allowed such marriages.
"These marriages will be recognized as lawful and considered eligible for all relevant federal benefits on the same terms as other same-sex marriages," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
"These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds," Holder said.
Herbert said Holder's action was not a surprise.
"State agencies have always been directed to comply with federal law when providing federal services and will continue to do so," he said in a statement. "Adherence to the rule of law, both federal and state as those laws govern respectively, is an unbending principle of this administration."
The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriages, condemned Holder's move as an overreach of federal authority.
"It is outrageous that the Justice Department would move so brazenly and publicly to undermine Utah's standing constitutional provision regulating marriage as the union of one man and one woman," Brian Brown, the group's president, said in a statement.
"It is the right of states to determine marriage, and the voters and legislature of Utah have done just that," he said.
Utah temporarily became the 18th U.S. state to have same-sex weddings when U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled last month that a voter-passed amendment to the state's constitution that defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman was unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday put that lower-court ruling on hold, at the request of Utah officials, halting gay weddings in Utah while the state appeals Shelby's decision to the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Gay rights advocates sent a letter to Holder on Thursday asking for federal recognition of same-sex marriages that had been performed in Utah, and for the benefits such as tax breaks that go along with official legal status.
Word of Friday's move by the Justice Department reached Angela Hinton as her wife, Michele Poast, was on the telephone with the Veterans Administration trying to secure benefits for their children. They live in Hurricane, Utah, near the border with Arizona.
"It's a validation," said Hinton, 41, who was married on December 23. "I mean, yes, we've been doing this thing together the whole time, but now it's officially recognized that you're a parent, a wife, a spouse."
About 2,000 gay marriage supporters packed the rotunda of Utah's capitol building on Friday, calling on the governor to drop the state's appeal of Shelby's ruling.
Some in the ebullient crowd carried wedding photos or family albums, while others held hand-scrawled signs that read "Our Family Deserves Equal Rights" and "U Cannot Unwind a Knot tied in Love." One lesbian couple had an oversized, laminated copy of their marriage license.
"It's time for you to embrace equality and to stick up for minority groups in Utah," said Derek Kitchen, a plaintiff in the marriage lawsuit.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said Obama welcomed the Justice Department's decision.
Holder in his statement said federal recognition of the Utah gay marriages is consistent with a Supreme Court ruling in June that held that people in same-sex marriages are entitled to equal treatment under federal law.
"This ruling (the high court's June decision) marked a historic step toward equality for all American families," Holder 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."
Little more than a decade ago, none of the 50 U.S. states recognized same-sex marriage. Since then, attitudes have changed rapidly in some parts of the country.
Lawyers following the legal fights expect the matter will return before long to the Supreme Court, which has not ruled on whether states such as Utah must recognize same-sex marriages.
The U.S. high court last year issued two high-profile decisions on gay marriage. One ruling struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The other paved the way for gay marriage to resume in California.