On Saturday, February 8, 2014, in a speech to a gay rights lobbying group in New York, Attorney General Eric Holder announced changes within the U.S. Justice Department, to benefit same-sex married couples in federal legal matters.
Holder stated the Justice Department will issue a memo Monday that recognizes same-sex marriages "to the greatest extent possible under the law." Holder told the Human Rights Campaign that he plans to put same-sex couples on the same legal footing as opposite-sex couples in other areas. Holder furthered that LGBT equality is “a defining civil rights challenge of our time.”
Rights included in the federal changes are expansive, including that, same-sex marriages will receive all of the benefits as traditional marriages such as recognizing a legal right not to testify against each other in civil and criminal cases, and other traditional benefits such as rights in bankruptcies, prison visits, and survivor benefits; this is extended even in the 34 states that do not recognize same-sex marriage.
So how did we get here? In June, the Supreme Court rejected part 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 that time, President Obama’s administration has assertively 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 September 11 victims' compensation fund two programs run by the Department of Justice.
These changes do not go unrecognized by opposition. Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, criticized what he called the latest move by President Barack Obama's administration "to undermine the authority and sovereignty of the states to make their own determinations regulating the institution of marriage." Brown further stated, "The American public needs to realize how egregious and how dangerous these usurpations are and how far-reaching the implications can be". "The changes being proposed here to a process as universally relevant as the criminal justice system serve as a potent reminder of why it is simply a lie to say that redefining marriage doesn't affect everyone in society."
It is important to be clear that these federal changes do not override state laws regarding marriage equality. Currently, the District of Columbia and 17 states have legalized same-sex marriage, however a number of other states still ban and delegitimize these unions.