Last week Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government will recognize so-called "marriages" performed in Utah between persons of the same sex that even Utah itself does not recognize as marriage. Presently, Utah defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. On December 20, 2013, a federal district judge struck down that definition, but on January 6 of this year, the United States Supreme Court stayed that decision while the case is on appeal.
However, Attorney General Holder is ignoring Utah law and imposing a contrary federal definition of marriage in that state. In this, General Holder’s decision is actually contrary to the Supreme Court's decision last year in United States v. Windsor. Windsor unfortunately struck down a uniform federal definition of marriage, but it made clear that the federal government is to respect a state's definition of marriage. In particular, the Court said that the federal government is to defer to “state sovereign choices about who may be married” and furthermore criticized federal actions – like General Holder’s – that “put a thumb on the scales and influence a state’s decision as to how to shape its own marriage laws.”
The Utah Attorney General, who (unlike General Holder) is responsible for enforcing Utah law, has declared that the validity of any same-sex “marriages” performed in Utah between December 20 and January 6 "will depend on the result of the appeal process.”
In other words, out of respect for the legal process, Utah will wait for the federal courts to decide. But not the Attorney General of the United States, who has already ruled that same-sex “marriages” performed between December 20 and January 6 are valid for purposes of federal law. If the federal government is legally obliged to defer to the marriage law of the state, as Windsor itself holds, then how can the federal government recognize as valid – even if only for federal purposes – marriages which a state has not deemed valid? This logically opens the door for the federal government to recognize any type of relationship (and with any number of partners) as valid marriages in contradiction to state law.
Events over these past several months (the most recent being the January 14 decision by a federal court in Oklahoma ruling that state’s marriage amendment unconstitutional) have made it clearer than ever that the marriage debate we are having in this country is not about access to the right of marriage, but the very meaning of marriage: what it is, and what it is for.
I encourage all those who know and believe the timeless truth about marriage, as well as all those who believe in following the established judicial procedures to address such issues, to not remain silent, but to exercise their constitutional rights as citizens of this great nation and to stand up for the truth.
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone is the Archbishop of San Francisco and Chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.