U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce a new policy today aimed at ensuring the Justice Department recognizes same-sex marriages under the law, the Washington Blade has learned.
Holder is scheduled to deliver the remarks at 7 p.m. during his speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual gala in New York City held at the Waldorf Astoria.
According to excerpts from his prepared remarks, Holder is set to announce the Justice Department will issue a memorandum on Monday to outline the changes, which will bring the department into compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.
Holder is prepared to make the announcement in the same speech in which he’s set to reflect on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“And yet, 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,” Holder’s prepared remarks say. “Just like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation’s struggle for LGBT equality could not be higher.”
Each of the changes is related to the way the Justice Department handles recognition of married same-sex couples. They range from rights in civil and criminal cases, rights as inmates and access to benefits programs:
• The Justice Department will recognize that same-sex spouses of individuals involved in civil and criminal cases have the same legal rights as straight married couples, including the right to decline to give testimony that might incriminate a spouse.
This new rule applies in non-marriage equality states. The government won’t object to couples in same-sex marriages invoking this right if they marry in another state, but their current jurisdiction doesn’t recognize their union.
• In bankruptcy cases, the U.S. Trustee Program will take the position that same-sex married couples should be treated in the same manner as opposite-sex married couples. Consequently, same-sex married couples will be eligible to file for bankruptcy jointly; certain debts to same-sex spouses or former spouses will be excepted from discharge; and domestic support obligations should include debts, including alimony, owed to a former same-sex spouse.
• Federal inmates in same-sex marriages will be entitled to the same rights and privileges as inmates in opposite-sex marriages. These rights include spousal visitation; 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 if an inmate’s spouse is incapacitated.
• The Justice Department will recognize same-sex couples for the purposes of a number of benefits programs it administers, such as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
Also among these programs is the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, which provides death benefits to surviving spouses of public safety officers, such as law enforcement officers and firefighters, who suffer catastrophic or fatal injuries while on duty.
“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,” Holder’s prepared remarks say.
The new policy comes seven months after the U.S. Supreme Court decision against Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Nothing in the excerpts of prepared remarks received by the Blade references DOMA, but a Justice Department official said the new changes are considered a step in the process to bring the Justice Department into compliance with the decision.
The Justice Department has coordinated the effort across the Obama administration to ensure married same-sex couples have the same rights and benefits under federal law as opposite sex couples in the wake of the DOMA decision. The various departments and agencies announced changes in policies since that time.
Chad Griffin, HRC president, praised Holder in a statement for changes he’s slated to announce within the Justice Department.
“This landmark announcement will change the lives of countless committed gay and lesbian couples for the better,” Griffin said. “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.”
At least one of the changes that Holder is set to announce — the eligibility of married same-sex couples to file jointly for bankruptcy — was already the policy of the Justice Department. According to Reuters, following a ruling against DOMA by a bankruptcy court in Los Angeles, the Justice Department in 2011 elected to no longer dismiss bankruptcy petitions filed jointly by married same-sex debtors.
In his remarks, Holder is set invoke the memory of former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his work in the civil rights movement as a reference point for the additional work the Justice Department is doing on LGBT rights.
“Then, as now, nothing less than our country’s commitment to the notion of equal protection under the law was on the line,” Holder’s prepared remarks say. “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 not let this Department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history.”
Just last month, Holder announced the federal government would recognize the more than 1,300 same-sex marriages that took place in Utah following a district court ruling legalizing gay nuptials in the state — even though the state won’t recognize the unions now that the U.S. Supreme Court has placed a stay on the weddings.
HRC’s Griffin said the actions that Holder is preparing to undertake are right in line with Kennedy’s legacy as civil rights icon.
“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,” Griffin said.