Federal marriage rights will expand “to the greatest extent possible under the law” in every state

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Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the US Justice Department will release a memo on February 10 that expands the federal rights of legally married same-sex couples “to the greatest extent possible under the law,” including in states that don’t recognize their marriages.

The expanded rights in question only extend to areas in which the federal government has jurisdiction, but those include prison visits, bankruptcy, and survivor benefits.

In a speech given on February 8 at a gala in New York City for the Human Rights Campaign, Holder declared, “I am proud to announce that the Justice Department is taking additional steps to further advance this ‘fundamental truth’—and to give real meaning to the Windsor decision. On Monday, I will issue a new policy memorandum that will—for the first time in history—formally instruct all Justice Department employees to give lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law.

“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. And this policy has important, real-world implications for same-sex married couples that interact with the criminal justice system.”

HRC president Chad Griffin said in a statement, “This landmark announcement will change the lives of countless committed gay and lesbian couples for the better. 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. Attorney General Holder continues to show incredible leadership, and this latest action cements his place in history alongside Robert F. Kennedy, another Attorney General who crusaded for civil rights.”

Other groups were not so happy; according to CNN, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, Brian Brown, said in a press release, “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.”

Under the new policies, same-sex married couples in court will have the right to decline to give testimony that might violate the marital privilege; the rights of all federal inmates and their spouses will expand to include full spousal visitation rights, 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.

Certain financial policies will also change; legally married same-sex couples will be able to jointly file for bankruptcy, ensuring domestic support debts and alimony payments will not be discharged. Same-sex couples will also qualify for survivor benefits such as those granted to the families of firefighters and police officers.

At the HRC gala, Holder’s speech concluded with, “I am profoundly optimistic about the country—and the world—that we will imagine; that we will plan for; and that each of us will surely help to create. I welcome the opportunity to work with you in this endeavor.”

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