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Utah gay marriages will be recognized by federal government, attorney general says

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Natalie Dicou, left, and her partner Nicole Christensen wait to get married at the Salt Lake County Clerks office in Salt Lake City, Utah, Dec. 20, 2013.

The federal government will recognize marriages performed in Utah after a judge struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban, Attorney General Holder said Friday, noting that the newly-wedded gay couples “should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status” as the legal challenges unfold.

Holder’s announcement comes two days after Utah ordered its state offices not to do anything that would acknowledge the more than 1,000 same-sex marriages performed in the state over a nearly three-week period following a federal judge's decision to strike down the ban on Dec. 20.

The Supreme Court ordered a stay on those weddings on Monday while the state challenges the judge’s ruling.

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

Gay couples celebrated the decision, which will open up more than 1,100 federal benefits to them.

"Awesome," said Mark Hofeling, who married his partner of nearly 16 years, Jesse Walker, on Dec. 20 in Salt Lake City. “To know that the federal government is standing by us during this is really extraordinary."

"That is such good news. It’s hard to feel like you’re a second-class citizen," said Judy Stiehl, 70, who married her wife Diana Lott after nearly 21 years together on Dec. 26 in Utah's Tooele County. Stiehl is emerging from a cancer battle, making it more important for their relationship to be legally recognized. "It's like a whole new beginning," she said.

The decision eased the disappointment for gay couples from earlier this week, when Utah Gov. Gary Herbert directed state agencies not to take any further action to honor the recently issued marriage licenses. In a memo to state officials, his chief of staff, Derek Miller, said there was doubt that the marriages were legally valid after the Supreme Court put a hold on the effect of a judge's ruling.

"State recognition of same-sex marital status is ON HOLD until further notice. Please understand this position is not intended to comment on the legal status of those same-sex marriages -- that is for the courts to decide," the memo said.

The directive means newlyweds won't be able to file joint state tax returns or proceed with second-parent adoptions. Herbert's office said Holder's announcement "comes as no surprise" and that state agencies had been complying with federal law when providing federal services.

"The problem remains that the state has selected a group of people to discriminate against," said Seth Anderson, who married his husband Michael Ferguson in the first gay marriage to be held in Salt Lake City on Dec. 20. The federal government's decision "means that we’re treated equally and I think it also underscores the importance of why marriage equality has to be a federal issue."

Holder said his determination was in line with the historic Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages. But the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, decried Holder's move, saying the high court justices had upheld another part of the federal DOMA law that allows states to set marriage policy.

“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, NOM president, said in a statement.

Though at least 32 state DOMAs remain on the books (excluding Utah, where another federal court has said it would expedite the state's appeal of the lower court judge’s decision), gay marriage supporters see 2013 as a watershed year: If the Utah ruling stands, the number of states that allow gays and lesbians to wed will be 18, up from nine states, plus the District of Columbia in January. Popular support has grown for same-sex marriage, too, with 54 percent of Americans supporting it in a July 2013 Gallup poll.

Supporters of the right of gays and lesbians to wed have filed 35 lawsuits in 19 states, including Utah, targeting state-level marriage bans. One of the challenges is expected to make it to the Supreme Court, experts said. 

A deadline has been set for the end of February for briefs to be filed in the Utah case before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The legal road ahead won't be easy, said Anderson. "Long and fraught with legal challenges but moving towards equality and freedom," he said.

How has the fall of the federal DOMA law affected your relationship? Share your story with reporter Miranda Leitsinger at miranda.leitsinger@nbcuni.com. Also note if your comments can be used and provide a telephone number. 

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