Attorney General Eric Holder plans widespread changes within
the U.S. Justice Department to benefit same-sex married
couples, such as recognizing a legal right for them not to
testify against each other in civil and criminal cases.
The changes, being unveiled by Holder in a speech on Saturday
in New York, are designed to keep pushing for gay rights in
the United States after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year
said the federal government cannot refuse to recognize
same-sex marriages carried out in states that allow them.
Gay marriage is permitted in only 17 of the 50 U.S. states,
as well as the District of Columbia.
U.S. law has long included a "spousal privilege" that
protects communications between a husband and wife so that
they cannot be forced to incriminate one another in court.
In addition to extending the privilege to same-sex couples in
situations involving the Justice Department, Holder said he
plans to put same-sex couples on the same legal footing as
opposite-sex couples in other areas, including how certain
debts are handled in federal bankruptcy proceedings and
visitation policies at federal prisons.
"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, they will strive to ensure that
same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections,
and rights as opposite-sex marriages under federal law,"
Holder said in excerpts of the speech released in advance.
The excerpts were released ahead of Holder's speech at an
event for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights lobbying
A written memo to department employees will follow on Monday.
It will "formally instruct all department employees to give
lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the
greatest extent possible under the law," according to the
The Supreme Court in June struck down part of a 1996 federal
law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal
government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Edith
Windsor, a lesbian widow, sued after the government forced
her to pay additional estate taxes because it did not
recognize her marriage.
Since then, President Barack Obama's administration has
aggressively implemented the ruling in contexts such as
immigration and federal employee benefits.
Holder will also make same-sex married couples equally
eligible for death benefits paid to the surviving spouses of
law enforcement officers who have died on duty and for
benefits from the Sept. 11 victims' compensation fund,
according to the speech excerpts. The Justice Department runs
'LAWLESSNESS OF THIS ADMINISTRATION'
Opponents of gay marriage condemned Holder's action.
"The news that the Justice Department will extend sweeping
recognition to 'marriages' of same-sex couples, even in
states that do not recognize such unions, is yet another
illustration of the lawlessness of this administration," Tony
Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a
Perkins noted that while the Supreme Court last year required
the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in
states that allow them, the justices were "conspicuously
silent on the status of such couples when they reside in a
state which considers them unmarried."
"The Obama administration's haste to nevertheless recognize
such unions in every state actually runs counter to the
Windsor decision's emphasis on the federal government's
obligation to defer to state definitions of marriage," he
added, referring to the Supreme Court ruling in the United
States v. Windsor case.
Comparing the gay-rights movement to the civil rights
movement of the 1960s, when Robert Kennedy served four years
as attorney general, Holder said it was important for his
department to act. "As attorney general, I will not let this
department be simply a bystander during this important moment
in history," he said, according to the excerpts.
"This landmark announcement will change the lives of
countless committed gay and lesbian couples for the better,"
Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign, said in a
"While the immediate effect of these policy decisions is that
all married gay couples will be treated equally under the
law, the long-term effects are more profound. Today, our
nation moves closer toward its ideals of equality and
fairness for all," Griffin added.
In states where same-sex marriage is not legal, spousal
privilege for same-sex couples is not guaranteed.
In politically conservative Kentucky, for example, a state
judge in September denied a woman's request for spousal
privilege to shield her from testifying against her partner
in a capital murder case.