Same-sex marriage lasted in Utah for about 2 1/2 weeks.
On Wednesday, the Utah governor's office directed state agencies to ignore the hundreds of gay marriages that were performed in the state after a federal judge struck down the state's ban Dec. 20.
The move -- which has significant implications for Utah couples seeking to file joint tax returns or join their spouses' healthcare plans -- comes two days after the U.S. Supreme Court halted same-sex marriage ceremonies in Utah while the matter is debated by an appeals court.
With the hold, the governor's office said Wednesday, Utah's original laws on same-sex marriage went back into effect.
"It is important to understand that those laws include not only a prohibition of performing same-sex marriages but also recognizing same-sex marriages," said a letter to state agencies from Derek B. Miller, chief of staff for the state's Republican governor, Gary Herbert.
"Based on counsel from the Attorney General's Office regarding the Supreme Court decision, state recognition of same-sex marital status is ON HOLD until further notice," the statement continued. "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."
Attorneys for the same-sex couples who originally sued the state over the marriage ban blasted the governor's decision.
"This unprecedented and disappointing action harms not only my clients, but hundreds of other same-sex couples who also were legally married, and whose families have been needlessly destabilized and stripped of basic legal protection," attorney Peggy A. Tomsic said in a statement.
Tomsic's office said more than 1,300 same-sex marriages had been performed in the state since the December ruling, noting that among other state benefits available to married couples, second-parent adoptions would no longer be able to go ahead.
"By taking this unwarranted action, the state of Utah has discounted the lives of thousands of Utah citizens who live, work, and raise their families in Utah and pay Utah and federal taxes like all other Utah citizens," Tomsic said. "Regardless of how the state believes the 10th Circuit will ultimately rule, these couples are legally married, and the state should treat them accordingly."
Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah law professor and chairman of the board of Equality Utah, a group that is pushing for gay unions, called the decision a "sad day" for same-sex couples in the state.
"These marriages were authorized by a federal court order and solemnized in accordance with Utah law," Rosky said in a statement. "The state has not been harmed at all by recognizing these marriages, but the harm to these families as a result of having the protections of marriage taken away is devastating."
Confusion had swirled in Utah after same-sex marriages started taking place immediately after the judge's ruling in December.
Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages but stopped short of saying whether state bans on the practice were unconstitutional.
Since then, however, lower courts have mimicked the the Supreme Court's arguments that such bans violate gay and lesbian couples' civil rights, which is what the federal judge in Utah, Robert J. Shelby, also decided.
And Shelby went a step further. "The Constitution protects the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights, which include the right to marry and the right to have that marriage recognized by their government," Shelby wrote in his opinion.
The state's attorney general appealed Shelby's ruling and made emergency requests for the practice to be put on hold, citing a worry that newlyweds would live under legal ambiguity until the case was finally settled.
Some ambiguity may continue, if the government's latest statement is any indicator: Although state agencies were ordered to halt services for the new couples, the governor's office said that couples who had already obtained new drivers' licenses under new married names, for example, could keep them.
"We appreciate your patience and diligence in this matter," the governor's office told the state agencies in the letter. "We recognize that different state agencies have specific questions and circumstances that will need to be worked through."
Attorneys for the same-sex couples who sued the state urged Utah's new couples to find their own attorneys to figure out "how best to protect their interests and families during the pendency of the appeal."
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Denver, has told both sides in the case to submit legal arguments by the end of this month.
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