Following the landmark Supreme Court Decision last June that struck down a provision in the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, the Justice Department has been adjusting federal policies, practices and programs to bring significant advances for gay couples in America.
On Saturday, January 8, 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. announced that the Justice Department would be making bold moves to eliminate discrimination between same-sex and opposite-sex married couples in the federal justice system. Holder was quoted at the Human Rights Campaign’s Greater New York Gala stating that “[t]his means that, 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 followed up this announcement with a formal policy memo released on Monday, January 10, 2014. In this memo he instructed 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.”
This memo sets out four major areas that will be affected by this change of policy. One is that the Justice 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 incriminate their spouse. Another is that the U.S. Trustee Program will take the position that same-sex married couples should be eligible to file for bankruptcy jointly and that domestic support obligations should include debts such as alimony owed to a former same-sex spouse. In addition to this, federal prisoners in same-sex marriages will be entitled to visitation by a spouse, inmate furloughs 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 an inmate’s spouse being incapacitated. Lastly, programs for survivors of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty will now be extended to same-sex spouses, which include death and educational benefits the government provides.
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