The Justice Department’s push to extend legal protections to same-sex couples in civil and criminal matters is the latest example of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder leading second-term social policy for the administration of President Barack Obama.
Holder said in a speech in New York on Feb. 8 that same-sex couples will receive many of the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. Under the guidelines issued today, federal prosecutors won’t object if a same-sex spouse declines to provide testimony that might incriminate his or her partner.
That policy shift is the most recent instance of Holder staking out the administration’s views on contentious issues such as drug laws and voting rights. Last month, Holder’s deputy James Cole urged defense lawyers to help the government identify imprisoned drug offenders who should win clemency because they were sentenced under stricter laws than exist today.
“The Justice Department’s role in confronting discrimination must be as aggressive today as it was in Robert Kennedy’s time,” Holder said, citing a crusading predecessor in his speech as a model for an activist approach. “As Attorney General, I will never let this department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history. We will act.”
In September, the Justice Department sued North Carolina, challenging voting restrictions that Holder said disproportionately affected “people who are young, people of color, people who are poor.” The lawsuit followed a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that opened the polls to millions of black Americans. The department had previously sued Texas on similar grounds.
The steps on social policy come as Holder begins his sixth year as the country’s top lawyer amid criticism from Republican lawmakers, who have blocked several of his previous policies. Holder’s plan to try accused 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court was rejected by Congress, as was the administration’s plan to close the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Holder was also the first sitting cabinet member to be held in contempt by lawmakers when House Republicans accused him of refusing to turn over information on his department’s botched Fast and Furious operation, a probe that allowed illegal gun purchases in the U.S. in an effort to link the weapons to Mexican gangs. He angered Democrats and Republicans alike over his department’s secret subpoena of Associated Press phone records in an investigation of leaks.
In his remarks on Feb. 8, 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,” he 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.
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.
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.
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 permitting gay marriage, up from 27 percent in 1996.
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.”