Utah ordered to grant benefits to more than 1,000 gay couples

FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 20, 2013 file photo, Chris Serrano, left, and Clifton Webb embrace after being married, as people wait in line to get licenses outside of the marriage division of the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office in Salt Lake City. A federal judge on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 is set to consider a request from the state of Utah to block gay weddings that have been taking place since Friday when the state's same-sex marriage ban was overturned. (AP Photo/Kim Raff, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge has ordered Utah officials to recognize more than 1,000 same-sex marriages that took place in the state before the U.S. Supreme Court issued an emergency stay.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in January on behalf of four couples who said the state’s decision to freeze benefits for same-sex couples violated their rights. The couples cited concerns such as having a partner legally recognized as a child’s second parent.

More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples married in Utah after a federal judge overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban Dec. 20. Those weddings came to a halt Jan. 6 when the Supreme Court granted the stay.

Utah officials argued that they had no choice but to hold off on benefits until an appeals court rules on the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball disagreed in his ruling Monday, saying Utah’s decision to freeze all benefits put the couples in an unacceptable legal limbo regarding adoptions, child care and custody, medical decisions and inheritance, among other things.

“These legal uncertainties and lost rights cause harm each day that the marriage is not recognized,” Kimball wrote.

He stayed his ruling for 21 days to allow the state an opportunity to appeal the ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Utah officials didn’t immediately have any comment.

ACLU of Utah’s legal director, John Mejia, said in a statement that the organization is “relieved that our clients will receive the full recognition they deserve as lawfully married couples.”

The ACLU argued that the marriages performed during the 17-day window when gay marriage was legal are valid no matter what the appeals court rules. The lawsuit contends that the couples should be able to move forward with efforts to make partners legal guardians of children or add their spouses to their health insurance or pension plans.

One of the four couples who brought the lawsuit was Matthew Barraza and Tony Milner. They have a 4-year-old son, Jesse, but only Barraza is legally recognized as a parent. They married in December and immediately petitioned to have Milner recognized as the second parent.

In issuing the freeze in early January, Gov. Gary Herbert told state agencies to hold off on any new benefits for the couples until the courts resolve the issue. Agencies were told not to revoke anything already issued, such as a driver’s license with a new name, but were prohibited from approving any benefits.

The state tax commission announced, however, that newly married gay and lesbian couples can jointly file tax returns for 2013.

State attorneys said in a court filing last month that moving forward with adoption requests and other benefits would be the equivalent of “a decision before a decision before a decision on finality.”

The state has made clear it was not ordering agencies to void the marriages, saying instead that validity of the marriages will ultimately be decided by the 10th Circuit, which is weighing the state’s appeal.

That court heard arguments in Utah’s case in early April, and a ruling is expected soon.


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