Attorney General Eric Holder plans to announce added recognition for same-sex married couples Saturday, vowing to treat same-sex spouses just like opposite-sex spouses in court proceedings, prison visitation and law-enforcement benefit programs even in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriages, a Justice Department official said.
In a speech to a gay rights group in New York, Holder will promise that Justice Department lawyers will respect spousal privilege for same-sex couples in court proceedings and that officials will award full benefits to same-sex spouses of police officers and other public safety personnel killed in the line of duty.
“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 is to tell a Human Rights Campaign dinner, according to excerpts of his speech released in advance.
“The department will recognize that same-sex spouses of individuals involved in civil and criminal cases should have the same legal rights as all other married couples – including the right to decline to give testimony that might incriminate their spouse. The government will not object to an individual in a same-sex marriage invoking this right on the ground that the marriage is not recognized in the state where the couple lives,” Holder plans to say.
Federal prisoners who have a same-sex spouse will also be treated just as those with opposite-sex spouses, according to the expected announcement.
“Federal inmates in same-sex marriages will also be entitled to the same rights and privileges as inmates in opposite-sex marriages. This includes visitation by a spouse, inmate furloughs to be present during a crisis involving a spouse, escorted trips to attend a spouse’s funeral, correspondence with a spouse, and compassionate release or reduction in sentence based on the incapacitation of an inmate’s spouse,” Holder’s prepared remarks say.
Holder will formally institute the new policies in a memo he will sign on Monday, an official said.
In his speech, Holder also plans to draw direct parallels between the movement to guarantee civil rights for African-Americans five decades ago and the present drive to end discrimination against gays and lesbians.
“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 runs just as deep,” the attorney general is to say, drawing a comparison once highly controversial in the black community. “Just like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation’s struggle for LGBT equality could not be higher.
“Then, as now, nothing less than our country’s commitment to the notion of equal protection under the law was on the line. And so the Justice Department’s role in confronting discrimination must be as aggressive today as it was in Robert Kennedy’s time. As Attorney General, I will not let this Department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history,” Holder plans to say.
Holder has been involved with many of the Obama administration’s boldest moves on gay rights.
In 2011, Holder announced — after consulting with President Barack Obama — that the Justice Department would not longer defend the federal law barring federal benefits for same-sex married couples: the Defense of Marriage Act. The Supreme Court struck the measure down as unconstitutional last year on a 5-4 vote.
Just last month, Holder declared that the federal government would recognize the marriages of more than 1,000 couples married in Utah after a federal judge struck down that state’s gay-marriage ban. The Supreme Court stayed the judge’s order a little more than two weeks later, ending the issuance of new marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
However, the ruling left more than 1,000 couples in limbo, prompting Holder’s announcement that the federal government will recognize those couples for tax and employee benefit purposes.