WASHINGTON — In a new milestone for gay rights, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. will issue a directive Monday expanding government recognition of same-sex marriages to all federal courtrooms and prisons, and some federal benefits programs.
The policy, which Holder announced Saturday night at a gay rights dinner in New York City, means the Justice Department will not object if gay or lesbian partners refuse to testify against their spouses in federal criminal and civil cases, and will push for them to be accorded the same rights in bankruptcy court as other married couples.
These privileges will be extended to same-sex couples even in states that do not recognize their marriages as long as they were legally married in another state.
“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,” Holder said.
Same-sex marriages also would be recognized for some federal programs, including one that provides death benefits to surviving spouses of police officers and firefighters who are injured or killed in the line of duty, as well as the compensation fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
While the changes may not affect large numbers of people, the gay advocacy community views them as another important step in the growing movement toward gender-based equality since the Supreme Court issued two rulings last June that expanded the rights of gay couples.
“While the immediate effect is that all gay married couples will be treated equally under the law, the long-term effects are more profound,” said Fred Sainz, vice president for communications at the Human Rights Campaign, which Holder addressed Saturday. “Today, our nation moves closer toward its ideals of equality and fairness for all.”
According to a copy of Holder’s prepared remarks, he told the group the government will take the position that married same-sex couples should be eligible to jointly file for bankruptcy and receive the same protections in bankruptcy court as other married couples.
Married same-sex couples in federal prisons will receive the same visitation privileges as other married inmates under the new policy. They also may be eligible for furloughs or even compassionate release in the case of a crisis involving their spouse.
Holder reminded the audience that he is the first black attorney general, and that his predecessors played a key role in the civil rights movement five decades ago.
“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,” Holder said.