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The federal government will recognize same-sex marriages in Utah that took place before the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state's request for a stay.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the decision a day after the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) urged him to ensure that those couples would be eligible for federal benefits.

"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 in a statement.

HRC President Chad Griffin hailed Holder's quick response, saying the couples "are married, plain and simple, and they should be afforded every right and responsibility of marriage."

"Attorney General Eric Holder has once again shown the kind of leadership that earns you a spot in the history books," Griffin said. "This is only the beginning of this fight, and this work continues until marriage equality returns to Utah for good, and full equality reaches every American in all 50 states."

U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled on Dec. 20 that the state's ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. By Jan. 6, when the Supreme Court issued a stay, county clerks throughout the state issued more than 1,300 licenses.

Earlier this week, Utah officials said they would not recognize marriages while the state appeals Shelby's decision. However, it said benefits associated with marriages were frozen at whatever step the couples reached before the stay.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes on Thursday told the state's 29 county clerks to complete processing any licenses that had been returned to them after couples married, which he said could be used as legal documents in states that recognize same-sex marriages.

Both Utah Gov. Gary Hebert and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said the federal government's announcement does not change — and is in fact consistent with — the state's position.

"We cannot recognize these marriages," said Missy Larsen, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office. "That doesn't mean they can't be recognized in [other] areas that recognize same-sex marriage. The validity of those marriages will be determined by the court, but the recognition is what Utah cannot do at this point."

But Stephen Wermiel, a law professor and constitutional expert at American University's Washington College of Law, said the situation is Utah "is now a real legal mess."

"The couples that received marriage licenses may now be eligible to file joint federal tax returns, but not married state tax returns, for example, or to be covered by federal benefits laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act but not by state benefits laws that require a valid marriage recognized by the state," Wermiel said. "In theory, perhaps this is OK, since each government, national and state, is regulating its own legitimate sphere of authority. And the situation may continue this way because both the state and the federal government were acting in their own realm."

But, Wermiel added, "in practical terms it feels like legal chaos that is really not fair to the couples who were given valid marriage licenses by public officials who at the time had the legal authority to grant those licenses."

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law and a federal court expert, agreed with Wermiel.

"Beyond the obvious conflict between the federal and state positions, it may not be that easy to identify exactly what is federal and what is state," Tobias said. "For example, I think that there are a number of benefits and programs, such as joint fed-state cooperative programs like food stamps, agriculture programs, WIC, and public assistance which are difficult to classify as one or the other."

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, criticized Holder's decision.

"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," Brown said. "It is the right of states to determine marriage, and the voters and Legislature of Utah have done just that. Their right to do so is encoded in the U.S. Constitution and was explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court this summer in the Windsor decision. But with this move, the Department of Justice under this Administration signals that it simply has no regard for the Constitution and the rule of law."

Holder said in his statement that in its decision in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court affirmed that same-sex couples are entitled to equal protection and equal treatment under the law.

"This ruling 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 — and moving to extend — federal benefits to married same-sex couples as swiftly and smoothly as possible."

Holder said families in Utah "should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status" while the state appeals Shelby's ruling.

Griffin also wrote to the attorneys general in marriage equality states urging them to recognize the legally conferred Utah marriages.

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