SALT LAKE CITY — Utah officials say in a new court filing that they have no choice but to put a freeze on granting benefits to newly married gay couples until a federal appeals court rules on the state's same-sex marriage ban.
The filing comes in response to a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed in January on behalf of four gay and lesbian couples who claim the state's decision violates their vested rights and has created wrenching uncertainty.
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 U.S. Supreme Court granted Utah an emergency stay, something two lower courts denied.
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 they are prohibited from approving any new marriages or related benefits. The state tax commission announced, however, that newly married gay and lesbian couples can jointly file tax returns for 2013.
State attorneys said that moving forward with adoption requests and other benefits would be the equivalent of "a decision before a decision before a decision on finality."
"Whether same-sex marriage is constitutionally required is an incredibly important legal and social issue. But that decision will be made by another court in another case," state attorneys wrote in this week's filing.
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 Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is weighing the state's appeal. A hearing in the matter is set for April 10.
The ACLU argues 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 the couples have vested rights in their new unions and 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.
But the state disagrees, saying in the argument that there is no harm done by waiting to find out what the appeals court decides. Attorneys point out that the couples in the lawsuit have been living in Utah for years without being able to marry, even though they could have moved to other states where it is legal.
"This case is not about gay marriage. It is about plaintiffs who knowingly relied on a nonfinal, trial court order to receive a marriage license, and now seek to gain all the benefits of that license immediately without allowing the courts to decide whether that first nonfinal order was right," the state said in its filing.
At the Utah Capitol on Friday, a handful of gay couples and their children urged lawmakers and Attorney General Sean Reyes to change course and allow adoption proceedings for same-sex couples married in Utah to move forward.
Cindy Sanders said her wife of 13 years is the sole legal guardian of the couple's infant son. Sanders earns the bulk of the family income, she said, so she wants her son to qualify for her own Social Security benefits.
"He's a viable part of our community, he's a beautiful boy," she said, choking back tears. "Please, do not hurt my son."
Riley Hackford-Peer, 12, said he feared that if his mothers broke up, officials won't let him live with one of his moms because she is not a legal guardian.
"All children deserve to have a family to protect them, and all families deserve to have the same legal rights," he said.
Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs . Associated Press writer Annie Knox contributed to this story.