Feds Will Recognize Michigan's Gay Marriages

Gov. Rick Snyder says the state won’t recognize them.

April DeBoer, left, and Jayne Rowse, react during a news conference in Ferndale, Mich., on March 21, 2014. A federal judge struck down Michigan's ban on gay marriage the same day in the latest in a series of decisions overturning similar laws across the U.S. The two nurses, who've been partners for eight years, claimed the ban violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution.

April DeBoer, left, and Jayne Rowse, react during a news conference in Ferndale, Mich., on March 21, 2014. A federal judge struck down Michigan's ban on gay marriage the same day in the latest in a series of decisions overturning similar laws across the U.S. The two nurses, who've been partners for eight years, claimed the ban violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution. 

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Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday the federal government will recognize same-sex marriages performed Saturday in Michigan.

More than 300 couples married after U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman struck down the state constitution’s ban on gay marriage. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit stayed Friedman’s decision late Saturday, after clerks in four of the state’s 83 counties issued marriage licenses to gay couples.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who opposes extending marriage rights to gay couples, said Wednesday the marriages were performed legally but that the state government would not recognize them until appeals are exhausted. That means the couples will not be entitled to state marriage rights, such as joint adoption and state tax benefits. 

Holder’s announcement is hardly a surprise. He made a similar decision in January after the Supreme Court halted implementation of U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby’s December ruling against Utah’s gay marriage ban.

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Shelby refused to stay his decision, which was premised on the Supreme Court’s June 2013 decision in U.S. v. Windsor. A two-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit also refused to stay the decision, allowing around 1,300 same-sex marriages to be performed in Utah between Dec. 20 and Jan. 6.

Holder granted the Utah marriages federal recognition citing the Windsor decision – even though the state will not recognize them. He pointed to that ruling again Friday, saying in a statement: 

“For purposes of federal law, as I announced in January with respect to similarly situated same-sex couples in Utah, these Michigan couples will not be asked to wait for further resolution in the courts before they may seek federal benefits to which they are entitled.  Last June’s decision by the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor was a victory for equal protection under the law and a historic step toward equality for all American families.  The Department of Justice continues to work with its federal partners to implement this decision across the government.”

The Windsor decision struck down the Defense of Marriage Act’s ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriages performed by states. It did not strike down the part of that law allowing states to ignore same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

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Justice Antonin Scalia warned in his Windsor dissent that the ruling could easily be applied to state bans. "How easy it is, indeed how inevitable, to reach the same conclusion with regard to state laws denying same-sex couples marital status," he wrote. That prediction seems to be holding true. After the Utah ruling, federal judges in Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas and now Michigan deemed unconstitutional state marriage bans. Federal judges in Ohio and Kentucky have issued more limited rulings against state marriage bans.

The Obama administration has progressively expanded federal recognition of gay marriages following the Windsor ruling. In September 2013 the Internal Revenue Service announced same-sex couples legally married in one of the 17 states that allow it would be entitled to federal tax benefits even if they moved to a jurisdiction that doesn't recognize their marriage. Holder said in February more rights – such as spousal privilege, joint bankruptcy filing and prison visitation – would be extended.