Gay Rights and the Justice Department

The Editorial Board New York Times

Since the Supreme Court struck down the provision in the Defense of Marriage Act denying federal benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples, the Justice Department has been helping federal agencies change their practices. Now the department is adjusting its own policies and programs, bringing significant advances for gay couples and American justice.

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. on Saturday unveiled a bold effort by his department to eliminate the distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex married couples in the federal justice system. On Monday, he issued a formal policy memo instructing employees that it is the Justice Department’s policy “to recognize lawful same-sex marriages as broadly as possible” and “treat all individuals equally regardless of sexual orientation.”

What that means in concrete terms, for example, is that in court cases and criminal investigations, same-sex couples will be covered for the first time by the “spousal privilege,” a rule that prevents spouses from being forced to testify against each other. Same-sex spouses of police officers or firefighters killed or catastrophically injured in the line of duty will be eligible for a special benefits program the Justice Department administers.

Same-sex couples will be recognized by the department when determining eligibility for payments from the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which is for people injured or made ill by the 2001 terrorist attacks. The Federal Bureau of Prisons must grant to federal inmates in same-sex marriages the rights and privileges given other married inmates. That includes equal visitation by a spouse and eligibility for compassionate release or a reduction in a sentence when an inmate’s spouse becomes incapacitated. In bankruptcy proceedings, the department will encourage judges to allow same-sex married couples to file for bankruptcy jointly. The department will also urge judges to require inclusion of alimony in domestic support obligations exempted from bankruptcy discharge.

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