Given its early history advocating for polygamous marriage – something that had to be given up as a condition for statehood – Utah’s fervent rejection of marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples is particularly ironic. In the latest development, a brave Federal judge has ruled that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. To the surprise of most of us, neither the judge nor the 10th Circuit Court of Appeal stayed the implementation of this ruling, and so approximately 1,000 same-sex couples married in Utah within a few days of the Court’s decision. Then, just recently, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling, preventing any further marriages from taking place.
The question now is what happens to the couples that got married before the Supreme Court’s ruling took effect. Contrary to the opinion of most legal analysts, the Utah state officials have stated that the marriages are not valid and will not be recognized. This does not seem to be the right decision: the Supreme Court has not overruled the trial court’s decision, and so for now, the marriages were validly entered into and should be recognized. Most likely there will be challenges to the state official’s position – especially if there is a break-up or death in one of the married couple’s lives before the final court ruling is issued.
Meanwhile, the federal government has announced that it will do the right thing and recognize these marriages for federal purposes. As a result of this ruling, the couples married in Utah will receive immigration and tax benefits, as well as Social Security and other federal program benefits. This decision is parallel to the recent ruling by most federal agencies that they will follow the “state of celebration” rules, and extend benefits to couples who are validly married, even if they reside in non-recognition states.
The Utah situation is actually a new wrinkle in this fabric of legal complexity. The federal recognition of valid marriages stands on solid ground. For example, if a Pennsylvania couple travels to New York city and gets married there, there is no question as to the validity of the marriage – and so the feds should recognize it. Here, the issue is not just one of Utah’s refusal to recognize the marriages – they may one day be found to be retroactively invalid, depending on how the appeals courts rule on the merits of the appeal. Still, we think the federal agencies are doing the right thing, both legally and politically. It’s important that the federal agencies send a clear message to state administrators and to the married couples, that the federal government will recognize their marriages as valid.
We applaud the advocates in Utah who are pursuing this worthy challenge, and we celebrate the couples who are willing to endure the legal complexity to move the marriage equality campaign forward.