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Justice Department set to recognize wider rights for same-sex couples

Attorney General Eric Holder testifies before a congressional panel in January 2014.
Attorney General Eric Holder testifies before a congressional panel in January 2014.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Attorney General Eric Holder plans to announce during a speech Saturday night that the Justice Department is set to release a memo instructing federal lawyers to provide “full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law,” to same-sex marriages.

The Huffington Post reported that the most immediate effects of the decision will include the recognition that same-sex marriages have the right to decline to provide testimony in a civil or criminal case that has the potential to violate their marital privilege, as well as allowing same-sex couples to jointly file for bankruptcy protection and allowing federal inmates who are in same-sex marriages to be visited by their spouses while receiving all other benefits that have been afforded traditional couples.

“This means that, 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 plans to say in a speech at the Human Rights Campaign gala Saturday evening.

The speech was released to media outlets earlier today.

In addition, the speech will highlight the department’s decision to recognize same-sex couples equally in all programs that are administered by DoJ. They include the Public Safety Officer’s Benefits Program, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and others.

Holder’s speech will focus, in part, on the Public Safety Officer’s program.

“This program is one way that we, as a country, stand by the families of those who put themselves in harm's way to keep our communities safe, and we must never do that selectively," Holder plans to say. "When any law enforcement officer falls in the line of duty or is gravely injured, the federal government should stand by that hero's spouse - no matter whether that spouse is straight or gay."

The speech, and the department’s decision, comes three weeks after Holder said the federal government would recognize same-sex marriages in Utah, where the governor has said that the state would not.

“Recently, an administrative step by the Court has cast doubt on same-sex marriages that have been performed in the state of Utah. And the governor has announced that the state will not recognize these marriages pending additional Court action,” Holder said. “In the meantime, I am confirming today that, for purposes of federal law, these marriages will be recognized as lawful and considered eligible for all relevant federal benefits on the same terms as other same-sex marriages.”

In addition, he said, “These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds. In the days ahead, we will continue to coordinate across the federal government to ensure the timely provision of every federal benefit to which Utah couples and couples throughout the country are entitled - regardless of whether they in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages.”

Same-sex marriage is banned in Utah, but a federal judge in December overturned the law. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has said that the state will continue to uphold its law until the state exhausts its appeal process.

Holder’s decision effectively undermines the Utah law, say critics.

“With this move, the Department of Justice under this administration signals that it simply has no regard for the Constitution and the rule of law,” National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said in a written statement following Holder’s announcement.

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