By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
10 February 2014
Married same-sex couples will enjoy the legal recognition and privileges granted to heterosexual married couples, according to an announcement from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on February 8.
Speaking to a gay rights advocacy group in New York City, Holder said he will issue a formal memo to Justice Department employees February 10 to outline the federal position in all legal matters going forward.
“In every courthouse, in every proceeding, and in every place where a member of the Department of Justice stands on behalf of the United States,” Holder said, Justice Department employees “will strive to ensure that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections and rights as opposite-sex marriages under federal law.”
The announcement caps a period of what Holder called “remarkable, once-unimaginable” progress for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. While many state governments have taken steps in recent years to recognize marriage of LGBT couples, the touchstone for federal action stems from a Supreme Court decision in mid-2013 striking down a 1996 federal law that had banned recognition of same-sex marriage.
“Thanks to the opinions handed down on that day — and the efforts of this organization and many others — there’s no question that this country stands at a new frontier in the fight for civil rights,” Holder said at a New York City dinner held by the Human Rights Campaign.
The Justice Department is the central agency for enforcement of federal laws. With that authority, this announcement changes the legal position of same-sex partners in a variety of circumstances under federal jurisdiction:
• Same-sex spouses of individuals charged with a crime cannot be compelled to testify against their partners, a longstanding marital privilege granted to heterosexual couples.
• Same-sex couples will be able to file for bankruptcy jointly, allowing some assets and debts to be excepted from bankruptcy proceedings.
• Federal prison inmates in same-sex marriages will be granted the same rights to spousal visits and contacts extended to traditional couples.
• Certain federal benefit programs will now give equal treatment to same-sex couples and heterosexual couples, notably benefits granted to the survivors of public safety officers who are killed in the line of duty.
The Obama administration has worked for the expansion of civil rights to LGBT citizens from its first year in office. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act was adopted in 2009 in response to vicious attacks on homosexuals who were assaulted because of their gender orientation. In 2010, the Obama administration repealed a Department of Defense policy that forced homosexual service members to keep their orientation secret or face the risk of being discharged.
Most recently, the Justice Department announced that federal tax and immigration laws must treat same-sex married couples with the same consideration granted to heterosexual couples. Employees of the U.S. government have also been assured that their same-sex partners will be eligible for the protections and benefits offered to heterosexual spouses.
The steady expansion of these LGBT rights puts the United States in a historic position like that of an earlier civil rights era, Holder said.
“Just as was true during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation’s struggle for LGBT equality could not be higher,” Holder said. “Then, as now, nothing less than our country’s founding commitment to the notion of equal protection under the law was at stake.”
As the government takes this series of actions on the federal level, LGBT rights are rapidly advancing at the state level. The advocacy organization Freedom to Marry reports that 17 states plus Washington have offered same-sex couples the benefits of legally recognized marriage. Several more states have broadened legal recognition of domestic partnerships.