U.S. Justice Department to expand rights of gay married couples

Sat Feb 8, 2014 9:57pm EST
 
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By David Ingram

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder on Saturday announced 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, unveiled by Holder in a speech to a gay rights lobbying group in New York, are designed to continue the push for gay rights in the nation 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 told the Human Rights Campaign that 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.

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.

The Supreme Court in June struck down part of a 1996 federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Edith Windsor, a lesbian widow, sued after the government forced her to pay additional estate taxes because it did not recognize her marriage.   Continued...

 
United States Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during the Human Rights Campaign's 13th annual Greater New York Gala in the Manhattan borough of New York, February 8, 2014. REUTERS/Keith Bedford