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Judge orders Utah to recognize gay marriages from before Supreme Court stay, grant benefits

FILE - In this March 12, 2014 file photo, plaintiffs Matthew Barraza, right, and Tony Milner arrive at the Frank E. Moss United States Courthouse in Salt Lake City. A federal judge Monday, May 19, 2014, ordered Utah officials to recognize more than 1,000 same-sex marriages that took place in the state before the U.S. Supreme Court issued an emergency stay. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in January on behalf of four couples who said the state's decision to freeze benefits for same-sex couples violated their right. Barraza and Milner were one of the four couples who sued. Only Barraza is legally recognized as a parent of their 4-year-old son Jesse. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

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FILE - In this March 12, 2014 file photo, plaintiffs Matthew Barraza, right, and Tony Milner arrive at the Frank E. Moss United States Courthouse in Salt Lake City. A federal judge Monday, May 19, 2014, ordered Utah officials to recognize more than 1,000 same-sex marriages that took place in the state before the U.S. Supreme Court issued an emergency stay. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in January on behalf of four couples who said the state's decision to freeze benefits for same-sex couples violated their right. Barraza and Milner were one of the four couples who sued. Only Barraza is legally recognized as a parent of their 4-year-old son Jesse. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY - When Matthew Barraza and Tony Milner's 5-year-old son starts kindergarten next fall, both of his fathers could finally be recognized as his legal parents.

A federal judge on Monday ordered Utah officials to recognize more than 1,000 same-sex marriages that took place in the state before the U.S. Supreme Court issued an emergency stay. If the rulings stands after a 21-day hold the judge placed on it, the state would be required to lift its freeze on benefits requested by gay couples.

Barraza and Milner married in December and have a pending request to have Milner recognized as a legal parent of their son, Jesse, who currently is only Barraza's son under the law.

"We're ecstatic," Barraza said. "It's something that is really good for us and our family."

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in January on behalf of four couples, including Barraza and Milner, who said the state's decision to freeze benefits for same-sex couples violated their rights.

The gay and lesbian couples married after a federal judge overturned Utah's same-sex marriage ban Dec. 20. Those weddings came to a halt Jan. 6 when the Supreme Court granted the stay.

Utah officials argued that they had no choice but to hold off on benefits until an appeals court rules on same-sex marriage.

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball disagreed in his ruling Monday, saying Utah's decision to freeze all benefits put the couples in an unacceptable legal limbo regarding adoptions, child care and custody, medical decisions and inheritance, among other things.

"These legal uncertainties and lost rights cause harm each day that the marriage is not recognized," Kimball wrote.

He stayed his ruling three weeks to give the state an opportunity to appeal the ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

The ruling has no bearing on a decision pending from that court about the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage ban that Utah voters passed in 2004.

Marty Carpenter, spokesman for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, said in a statement that the state is reviewing the ruling, evaluating options and determining how this relates to other pending cases.

The conservative Sutherland Institute of Utah decried the ruling in a statement, saying it gives too much merit to a "novel ruling" by one judge.

"Our system is weaker when judicial gamesmanship is not kept in check," said Bill Duncan, the institute's director of the centre for family and society. "We trust the 10th Circuit will do that quickly."

In issuing the freeze in early January, 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 were prohibited from approving any benefits.

The state tax commission announced, however, that newly married gay and lesbian couples can jointly file tax returns for 2013.

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 10th Circuit. The court heard arguments in Utah's case in early April, and a ruling is expected soon.

John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU in Utah, called Monday's ruling thorough and well-reasoned, and said he expects to withstand any challenge. The ACLU argued that the marriages performed during the 17-day window when gay marriage was legal are valid no matter what the appeals court rules.

"It's nice to see our relationships recognized with such compassion," said Marina Gomberg, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with her wife, Elenor Heyborne.

But the legal limbo isn't completely over.

On Friday, the Utah Supreme Court ordered a temporary halt of several district judges' orders requiring the state health department to issue birth certificates in adoptions by same-sex parents.

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Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed to this report. Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs .

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