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In a speech at the Human Rights Campaign's annual gala in New York City on February 8, 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will treat same-sex married couples the same way they treat heterosexual married couples in matters ranging from the spousal privilege in court, prison visits, bankruptcy filings, and death benefits for law-enforcement officials.The Attorney General said that on February 10, he will issue a policy memorandum aimed at eliminating any distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex married couples in the federal criminal justice system. The policy changes will extend to all states, even those that refuse to recognize same-sex marriage.
"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.
In his prepared remarks, which may be found at Towleroad, Holder firmly allies himself with the struggle for glbtq equality, which he describes as "a cause that, I believe, is a defining civil rights challenge of our time."
Rehearsing the long list of achievements by the Obama administration, he declared that glbtq civil rights are a "top priority," and added "we have brought about historic, meaningful, lasting change."
He then announced that the Justice Department is committed to "make real, the full promise of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Windsor case," which invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act.
Holder said that in addition to numerous steps already taken by the federal government in response to the Windsor decision, he will be taking additional steps to advance what President Obama has described as a "fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: that when all Americans are treated as equal . . . we are all more free."
Among the real-life consequences of the new policy to be issued on February 10 are the following: "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 violate the marital privilege. Under this policy, even in states where same-sex marriages are not recognized, the federal government will not use state views as a basis to object to someone in a same-sex marriage invoking this right."
In addition, "In bankruptcy cases, the United States Trustee Program will take the position that same-sex married couples should be treated in the same manner as opposite-sex married couples. This means that, among other things, same-sex married couples should be eligible to file for bankruptcy jointly, that certain debts to same-sex spouses or former spouses should be excepted from discharge, and that domestic support obligations should include debts, such as alimony, owed to a former same-sex spouse."
The policy will also affect prison inmates in same-sex marriages, who will henceforward 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."
Moreover, the Department will also recognize same-sex couples for the purposes of a number of benefits programs such as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, and the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program.
In his speech, Holder unhesitatingly linked the movement for glbtq rights with the Civil Rights Movement.
He made the following pledge: "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 or gender identity runs just as deep."
He continued, "Just as was true 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 founding commitment to the notion of equal protection under the law was at stake. 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 never let this Department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history. We will act."
The Attorney General's pledge was hailed by Human Rights Campaign's president Chad Griffin, who praised Holder's "incredible leadership" and compared him with Robert F. Kennedy, "another Attorney General who crusaded for civil rights."
Griffin said in reference to the policy memorandum that will be issued on February 10, 2014: "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."
The video below presents excerpts from Holder's speech.