By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - A gay rights group asked the U.S. federal government on Thursday to recognize the marriages of gay couples who wed in Utah after a court ruling briefly legalized gay unions in the conservative, predominantly Mormon state.
Utah temporarily became the 18th state to legalize same-sex marriage when a U.S. federal district judge ruled on December 20 that a state ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. His ruling was put on hold this week by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before roughly 1,400 gay couples tied the knot.
The office of Utah's Republican governor said on Wednesday the state would not recognize those marriages, at least for now, as state attorneys appeal the case before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
State agencies were also directed to freeze any applications for state marriage benefits. But Utah has said it is not questioning the legal status of the marriages even as it puts recognition of the unions on hold, saying that was a matter for the courts to decide.
In a letter sent on Thursday to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the Human Rights Campaign said the couples and their families should have access to federal benefits.
The letter notes a June 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that same-sex married couples were entitled to "equal protection and equal treatment under the law."
"Given this landscape of facts, there is simply no reason for the United States government not to extend federal recognition to these more than 1,300 couples," said the letter, by Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin.
Griffin said he was seeking an advisory opinion declaring that all legally conferred marriages should be treated equally and consistently.
In a separate letter, his group also asked the attorneys general of the 17 states where same-sex unions are legal to recognize Utah's gay marriages.
A Department of Justice official who had not been authorized to speak on the record confirmed that the letter had been received. A message seeking comment from Utah Governor Gary Herbert's office was not immediately returned.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes on Thursday told county clerks to provide marriage certificates to same-sex couples whose wedding ceremonies happened before the top U.S. court's ruling.
Although Utah will not recognize the marriages, providing paperwork amounted to an administrative, not legal, function, Reyes said. It would give gay couples proper documentation in states where their marriages are legal.
"Based on our analysis of Utah law, the marriages were recognized at the time the ceremony was completed," Reyes said in a statement.
(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City; Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)