At the annual gala of Human Rights Campaign Greater New York, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had an appropriate venue and audience to announce changes in federal policies to “ensure that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections and rights as opposite-sex marriages.”
During the event at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Holder detailed these changes:
• The 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 violate the marital privilege. Under this policy, even in states where same-sex marriages are not recognized, the federal government will not use state views as a basis to object to someone in a same- sex marriage invoking this right.
• In bankruptcy cases, the U.S. Department of Justice United States Trustee Program will take the position that same-sex married couples should be treated in the same manner as opposite-sex married couples. This view means that, among other things, same-sex married couples should be eligible to fi for bankruptcy jointly, certain debts to same-sex spouses
or former spouses should be excluded from discharge and domestic support obligations should include debts — such as alimony — owed to a former same-sex spouse.
• Federal inmates in same-sex marriages will also be entitled to the same rights and privileges as inmates in opposite-sex marriages. These rights include visitation by a spouse, in- mate 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 based on the incapacitation of an inmate’s spouse.
Holder also highlighted progress already made, including the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law in 2010. “We celebrated the beginning of a new era for many brave servicemen and women,” he said. “And, we ensured that, here at home and around the world, lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans can serve proudly, honestly and openly — without fear of being fired for who they are.”
The newly-reauthorized Violence Against Women Act includes new provisions that ensure LGBT survivors of domestic abuse have access to the same services as other survivors of partner violence.
“And we can be invigorated by the Justice Department’s efforts to enforce critical civil rights protections – includ- ing the landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act,” he continued. “This law strengthened the Department’s ability to prosecute those who victimize others because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Today, we are more prepared – and better equipped – than ever before to pursue allegations of federal hate crimes wherever they arise; to bring charges whenever they are warranted; and to support our state and local law enforcement partners in enforcing their own hate crimes laws.” He indicated that the hate crimes prevention act was the precursor to the Justice Department’s decision to no longer defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
The attorney general also listed other advancements, including the extension of benefits for the partners of same-sex federal workers. In addition, Holder indicated that his department will also recognize same-sex couples for the pur- poses of a number of key benefit programs it administers, such as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, the Public Safety Office Benefits Program and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, all of which pro- vide benefits for surviving spouses.
“These initial changes will positively impact the lives of so many throughout the nation. All of these steps forward are worth celebrating,” Holder explained, and added that there is much left to be done.
At this time, 29 states do not provide employment protection for LGBT individuals working in the private sector. Six states offer protective measures based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity. Another goal that has not been achieved is an executive order that would prohibit companies that contract with the federal government from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“This is no time to rest on our laurels,” he continued. “Important, life-changing work remains before us, and we know from our history that the road ahead will be anything but easy. Always remember that progress is not inevitable and that positive change occurs only through commitment and through struggle.”