The Justice Department on Monday will extend a new package of federal benefits to same-sex couples that Attorney General Eric Holder said will give “lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law.”
In remarks prepared for a speech Saturday night to the Human Rights Campaign in New York, Holder said the new benefits will apply to gay couples who are legally married, even to those who live in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage.
The moves are the latest in a series of actions following the US Supreme Court’s ruling in June that struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had barred the federal government from recognizing legally valid same-sex marriages.
As a result of the new measures announced Saturday, “our nation moves closer to its ideals of equality and fairness for all,” said Chad Griffin of Human Rights Campaign.
Under the new directive, government lawyers will operate under the assumption that same-sex spouses should have the same rights in federal courts as opposite-sex couples, such as declining to testify against a spouse. That rule will apply in federal criminal and civil cases, Holder said, “even in states where same-sex marriages are not recognized.”
Same-sex couples will also receive federal death benefits and educational payments given to surviving spouses of public safety officers who suffer catastrophic injuries or die in the line of duty.
“The federal government should stand by that hero’s spouse — no matter whether that spouse is straight or gay,” Holder said.
Inmates in federal prison who have same-sex spouses will be given the same benefits as those in opposite-sex marriages, including visitation rights and eligibility for compassionate release or reductions in sentences based on the incapacitation of a spouse.
And the Justice Department will take the position that same-sex couples should be treated equally in federal bankruptcy proceedings.
Holder, who has made civil rights a priority for the Justice Department, said that as important as the right against racial discrimination has been, “my commitment to confronting discrimination based on sexual orientation runs just as deep.”