Same-sex married couples will receive many of the same federal legal protections and benefits as their opposite-sex counterparts under Justice Department guidelines to be issued tomorrow, Attorney General Eric Holder said.
The moves will affect procedures in U.S. courtrooms and the aid provided surviving spouses of slain law officers, among other matters.
The policy will “formally instruct all Justice Department employees to give lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law,” Holder said in remarks yesterday in New York City.
The change will apply to same-sex couples residing in states where such marriages are not recognized. It also represents the first time the Justice Department has officially interpreted the words “spouse” and “marriage” in federal laws it enforces to apply to same-sex couples.
“As attorney general, I will not let this department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history,” Holder said.
Under the policy, the Justice Department will recognize that same sex couples are entitled to the same rights as their opposite-sex counterparts in civil and criminal cases, according to Holder. As a result, Holder said, federal prosecutors won’t object if a same-sex spouse declines to provide testimony that might incriminate his or her partner.
The Justice Department will also provide death and educational benefits, through the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, to same-sex spouses of law-enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.
“The federal government should stand by that hero’s spouse, no matter whether that spouse is gay or straight,” Holder said in the speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s Gala at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. The Human Rights Campaign is a Washington-based group that promotes gay rights.
The policy change also should permit same-sex married couples to jointly apply for bankruptcy protections, Holder said. The Justice Department’s U.S. Trustee Program will “take the position” that same-sex couples should be treated the same as those in traditional unions in bankruptcy proceedings, he said.
Other beneficiaries will include federal inmates who are part of a same-sex marriage. These inmates will be permitted to have spousal visits and to be escorted to their partners’ funerals, Holder said.
The new policy follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision last June that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of marriage as a heterosexual union, a provision that had denied legally married gay couples federal benefits. On the same day, the court let stand a ruling that California’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
Gay marriage is legal in 17 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
Holder’s move comes as polls have shown a growing public acceptance in America of gay marriage.
In a Gallup Poll released last July, 52 percent of Americans backed laws permitted gay marriage, up from 27 percent in 1996.
President Barack Obama, after publicly saying he didn’t favor gay marriage, reversed himself in a televised interview in 2012, saying he thought “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
Other federal agencies also have made changes following last year’s Supreme Court ruling.
The Internal Revenue Service declared that same-sex marriages performed in jurisdictions where they are legal would be recognized as legitimate under federal tax law, regardless of the state where a gay couple resides. That means such couples can file joint IRS tax returns.
The Defense Department has said it would make the same benefits available to same-sex spouses that heterosexual couples can receive.
In his remarks, Holder, the first black U.S. attorney general, linked the fight over gay marriage to the struggle of civil rights advocates in the 1950s and 1960s.
“As all-important as the fight against racial discrimination was then, and remains today, know this: My commitment to confronting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity runs just as deep,” Holder said.
The policy change drew criticism from the National Organization for Marriage, a group seeking to block legalization of same-sex unions.
“It’s more utter lawlessness from the Obama administration,” said Brian Brown, the group’s president.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the new policies “will change the lives of countless committed gay and lesbian couples for the better.”
Holder last month declared the federal government would recognize about 1,000 same-sex marriages performed in Utah. The action applied to same-sex couples married during a 2 1/2-week period between a federal judge’s decision overturning a state ban on those unions and a Jan. 6 order from the Supreme Court that put the decision on hold.
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