WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice beginning Monday will instruct its employees nationwide to apply the same protections and privileges to spouses in same-sex marriages as they do to heterosexual marriages, regardless of how a given state might view those relationships.
Addressing the Human Rights Campaign's annual gala in New York City Sunday night, Attorney General Eric Holder said: "This 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."
In practical terms, this would mean same-sex spouses could not be compelled to testify against each other, such couples could jointly file for bankruptcy, and would have the same prison visitation and furlough rights as traditionally married couples now have, reported David Sherfinski in The Washington Times.
Sherfinski also quoted Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who, speaking on CBS, said the move "appears to be another example of the Obama administration imposing its will on the states. It could be an issue for other states that are having this debate or have made different policy decisions."
Holder said his actions stem from the Windsor decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June overturned several sections of the 1993 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. Earlier, Holder and President Obama said the Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA before the high court, believing the measure to be unconstitutional.
The move drew a positive response from HRC President Chad Griffin, who said in a statement: "This landmark announcement will change the lives of countless committed gay and lesbian couples for the better. 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."
Those "profound" effects didn't warm the hearts of traditional marriage advocates, however.
"While the Supreme Court's ruling in the Windsor case last summer required the federal government to recognize such unions in states which also recognize them, the Court was conspicuously silent on the status of such couples when they reside in a state which considers them unmarried. The Obama administration's haste to nevertheless recognize such unions in every state actually runs counter to the Windsor decision's emphasis on the federal government's obligation to defer to state definitions of marriage," said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins in a statement released by the group.
Perkins' statement also called for activists to support the State Marriage Defense Act of 2014, introduced by Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas. The bill currently has 51 co-sponsors and was referred to the House Judiciary Committee for action on Jan. 9. Weber's bill would prohibit moves such as those envisioned by Holder in those state that do not recognize same-sex marriages.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, released a statement blasting the move: "The American public needs to realize how egregious and how dangerous these usurpations are and how far-reaching the implications can be. The changes being proposed here to a process as universally relevant as the criminal justice system serve as a potent reminder of why it is simply a lie to say that redefining marriage doesn't affect everyone in society."