At a HRC gala in New York last night, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a number of new policies that will give gay and lesbian couples more of the rights and access enjoyed by their heterosexual married counterparts.
Among those benefits are the right not to testify against a spouse, the right to demand alimony, to visit spouses in prison and, in some cases, receive death benefits.
“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 announced at the event, according to excerpts of his speech released in advance.
Significantly, these changes will apply even in states that do not recognize marriage equality.
• The Justice Department will recognize that same-sex spouses of individuals involved in civil and criminal cases have the same legal rights as straight married couples, including the right to decline to give testimony that might incriminate a spouse.
This new rule applies in non-marriage equality states. The government won’t object to couples in same-sex marriages invoking this right if they marry in another state, but their current jurisdiction doesn’t recognize their union.
• In bankruptcy cases, the U.S. Trustee Program will take the position that same-sex married couples should be treated in the same manner as opposite-sex married couples. Consequently, same-sex married couples will be eligible to file for bankruptcy jointly; certain debts to same-sex spouses or former spouses will be excepted from discharge; and domestic support obligations should include debts, including alimony, owed to a former same-sex spouse.
• Federal inmates in same-sex marriages will be entitled to the same rights and privileges as inmates in opposite-sex marriages. These rights include spousal visitation; inmate furloughs to be present 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 if an inmate’s spouse is incapacitated.
• The Justice Department will recognize same-sex couples for the purposes of a number of benefits programs it administers, such as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
Also among these programs is the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, which provides death benefits to surviving spouses of public safety officers, such as law enforcement officers and firefighters, who suffer catastrophic or fatal injuries while on duty.