The action means that more than 1,000 same-sex couples who were married in Utah in the last month can file federal taxes jointly, get Social Security benefits for spouses and request legal immigration status for partners, among other benefits.
The declaration by Attorney General Eric Holder marked the latest chapter in the legal battle over same-sex marriage in Utah that has sent couples and state officials on a helter-skelter wave of emotions over the last three weeks.
A federal judge overturned Utah's ban on same-sex marriage on Dec. 20, and hundreds of couples got married. The U.S. Supreme Court intervened this week and put a halt to the weddings until the courts sort out the matter. Utah then declared it would not recognize the weddings, but would allow couples to continue to receive whatever benefits they had obtained before the high court ruling.
Utah leaders reiterated on Friday that the state would not recognize same-sex weddings, meaning couples can receive federal benefits but are limited at the state level. The Mormon church weighed in again Friday, instructing local leaders that same-sex wedding ceremonies and receptions are prohibited in its churches and reiterating its belief that homosexuality is not condoned by God.
But for same-sex couples who have experienced a wave of emotions, the show of support from the federal government provided validation and turned a rally at the Utah state capitol into a raucous celebration.
Among the hundreds of people who packed the capitol rotunda for the midday rally were Seth Anderson and Michael Ferguson, the first gay couple to legally marry in Utah following the Dec. 20 ruling. They said they were elated to hear they would be allowed to file taxes jointly and enjoy the benefits afforded any married couples.
"Our apartment burst into celebratory anthems of Cher and Beyoncé," said Seth Anderson about his reaction to Holder's statement. "It is a great feeling to know the federal government stands with us, especially in a state that has for years tried to exclude us."
People held signs that read, "Two moms make a right," ''Love is love" and "Marriage is a human right — not a heterosexual privilege" and "We are Family" played through loudspeakers.
Holder said the families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their benefits while courts decide the issue of same-sex marriage in Utah.
President Barack Obama welcomed Holder's determination, said White House spokesman Jay Carney. He said he didn't know whether Obama specifically discussed the issue with Holder before the decision, but added the President has publicly expressed his support for same-sex marriage and equal rights for all Americans. Obama publicly came out in support of gay marriage in May 2012.
Holder's decision came days after Utah officials said they would not recognize the marriages. The office of Gov. Gary Herbert told state agencies this week to put a freeze on proceeding with any new benefits for the newly married gay and lesbian couples until the courts sort out the matter. But the state attorney general's office has told local clerks to finish paperwork for same-sex marriages completed before the Supreme Court issued a temporary halt.
In a statement Friday afternoon, Herbert's office said Holder's announcement was unsurprising, but state officers should comply with federal law if they're providing federal services.
Attorney General Sean Reyes did not have an immediate comment on Holder's announcement.
State agencies aren't supposed to revoke anything already issued, such as a marriage certificate or a driver's license with a new name, but they are prohibited from approving new marriages or benefits. State officials said the validity of the marriages will ultimately be decided by the courts.
The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will consider the long-term question of whether gay couples have a right to marry in Utah. The state's voters approved the ban in 2004.
Federal government agencies have previously confirmed that same-sex couples in other states are entitled to federal benefits, but this is the first time Holder has come out publicly and issued this kind of guidance, said Douglas NeJaime, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine.
"Symbolically, it's an important step that the federal government has taken," NeJaime said.
But it's not surprising, he said. The federal government has been making clear for several years that same-sex marriages should be honoured.
"The fed government has been pushing up against the states that do not recognize same-sex marriages already," NeJaime said. "This is another step in that direction."
Holder said in a video on the Justice Department's website that the government will co-ordinate among agencies to make sure Utah couples get federal benefits.
Laura Fields, who retired from the Air Force in 2006, said her new wife can now get a military identification card that will allow her to take advantage of benefits offered military spouses, such as health coverage and access to commissaries and exchanges on the base to buy food and household items at a discount.
Until now, Fields said she has had to carry an extra insurance policy to cover her partner of five years. They live in a small city outside Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah and married on Christmas Eve.
Ken Kimball knows how the federal recognition of gay marriage helps out. He and his spouse, Miguel Santana, have saved $14,500 in the past two years filing joint tax returns after they married in Washington D.C. They live in Salt Lake City now and remarried recently to make sure it was valid in Utah.
Both Kimball and Santana come from Mormon families, like many in Utah.
Nearly two-thirds of Utah's 2.8 million residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons dominate the state's legal and political circles. The Mormon church was one of the leading forces behind California's short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8.
On Friday, church leaders issued a statement instructing local leaders that same-sex wedding ceremonies and receptions are prohibited in their churches. Leaders also reiterated their belief that homosexuality is not condoned by God.
"Changes in the civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established," the statement said. "God expects us to uphold and keep His commandments regardless of divergent opinions or trends in society. His law of chastity is clear: sexual relations are proper only between a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife."
Leaders said they and others who oppose same-sex marriages are entitled to express their views without fear of retribution. Likewise, the church urged its members to be kind and respectful to proponents of same-sex marriage.
Associated Press writers Michelle L. Price in Salt Lake City and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington D.C., contributed to this report. Yost reported from Washington, D.C.