U.S. Justice Department to expand rights of same-sex couples

Sat Feb 8, 2014 5:39pm EST
 
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By David Ingram

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder plans widespread changes within the U.S. Justice Department to benefit same-sex married couples, such as recognizing a legal right for them not to testify against each other in civil and criminal cases.

The changes, being unveiled by Holder in a speech on Saturday in New York, are designed to keep pushing for gay rights in the United States after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year said the federal government cannot refuse to recognize same-sex marriages carried out in states that allow them.

Gay marriage is permitted in only 17 of the 50 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia.

U.S. law has long included a "spousal privilege" that protects communications between a husband and wife so that they cannot be forced to incriminate one another in court.

In addition to extending the privilege to same-sex couples in situations involving the Justice Department, Holder said he plans to put same-sex couples on the same legal footing as opposite-sex couples in other areas, including how certain debts are handled in federal bankruptcy proceedings and visitation policies at federal prisons.

"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 said in excerpts of the speech released in advance.

The excerpts were released ahead of Holder's speech at an event for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights lobbying organization.

A written memo to department employees will follow on Monday. It will "formally instruct all department employees to give lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law," according to the excerpts.   Continued...

 
A gay couple holds hands during a rally in support of the United States Supreme Court decision on marriage rights in San Diego, California June 26, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake