Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday extended federal recognition to the marriages of more than 1,000 same-sex couples in Utah that took place before the Supreme Court put those unions in the state on hold.
The attorney general's action will enable the government to extend eligibility for federal benefits to these couples.
Holder said the couples "should not be asked to endure uncertainty" regarding their benefits while courts decide the issue of same-sex marriage in Utah.
"For purposes of federal law, these marriages will be recognized as lawful and be considered eligible for all relevant federal benefits on the same terms as other same-sex marriages," he said in a video statement posted on the Justice Department's website.
Neither Utah Gov. Gary Herbert nor state Attorney General Sean Reyes had immediate comment on Holder's announcement.
More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples took home marriage licenses from local clerks after a federal judge overturned Utah's same-sex-marriage ban on Dec. 20. Utah voters approved the ban in 2004.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court put a halt to same-sex marriages in Utah while the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers the long-term question of whether gay couples have a right to marry in Utah.
"In the days ahead, we will continue to coordinate across the federal government to ensure the timely provision of every federal benefit to which Utah couples and couples throughout the country are entitled — regardless of whether they are in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages," Holder said Friday.
Among same-sex couples in Utah, Holder's declaration was greeted with applause.
"It gives me hope moving forward in the appeals process," Moudi Sbeity said. "It shows that there really is a social and cultural shift in viewpoints and mindsets toward marriage equality."
Sbeity and his partner, Derek Kitchen, are among three couples who brought the Utah lawsuit that led to the surprise Dec. 20 ruling by District Judge Robert Shelby, who said the state's ban on same-sex marriage violated gay and lesbian couples' constitutional rights.
Sbeity said he hopes Holder's declaration will persuade Herbert to shift the state's position. "I'm sure he doesn't want 1,300 lawsuits on his desk," he said.
Several hundred same-sex-marriage supporters were planning a rally at the Utah State Capitol on Friday afternoon. Organizers planned to deliver a petition to the governor and state attorney general asking them to let the federal judge's ruling stand and allow gay marriages to continue.
Tim Wagner of Salt Lake City, one of the organizers of the rally, said Holder's announcement was "pretty amazing" and a great thing for the newly married couples.
"It sounds like our national attorney general actually sees the law in the way it should be acknowledged," Wagner said. "The law is on the side of rights and the people who want to love the people they love."
On Thursday, the Utah attorney general issued legal advice to local clerks, advising them to finish paperwork for same-sex marriages completed before the Supreme Court issued the temporary halt.
Reyes' new advice was issued to clear up some confusion and applies only to marriages that were solemnized, said his spokeswoman, Missy Larsen.
"As long as the marital ceremony happened prior to the stay, then the marriage can receive documentation," Larsen said.
The attorney general's office said Thursday's guidance was not a decision on whether the marriages are valid.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, said, "This is only the beginning of this fight, and this work continues until marriage equality returns to Utah for good."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press