The Justice Department is officially expanding the legal privileges of same-sex couples all over the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Saturday night at a fundraising gala for a gay rights advocacy group. The policy change leaves states that don’t allow gay marriage in murky legal waters.
The changes, expected to go into effect today, give “full and equal recognition” to married, same-sex couples in all federal criminal and civil court matters, regardless of whether they live in a state that allows gay marriage. For example, a couple who married in Iowa, which allows gay marriage, but lives in Missouri, which does not, can file for bankruptcy in federal court in Missouri. Also under the changes, same-sex married couples cannot be forced to testify against each other in federal court, and gay inmates can receive the same spousal visitation privileges as straight, married inmates in federal prison.
In his speech, Holder called gay marriage the “defining civil rights issue of our time.” He said, “For President Obama, for me and for our colleagues at every level—every level—of the administration, this work is a top priority.”
The latest changes from the Justice Department, which has granted numerous federal benefits to same-sex spouses in the past six months, illustrate the breadth of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defined marriage as between a man and a woman in all acts of Congress, federal regulations, and rulings, but the court ruled that definition was discriminatory.
Since then, the Obama administration has taken wide liberties to rewrite federal laws and regulations that mention marriage. Before a crowded ballroom at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Saturday night, Holder congratulated himself and President Barack Obama for their pro-gay penstrokes since the Supreme Court’s June 2013 ruling. He also reminded the crowd that they paved the way for the Windsor ruling by refusing to defend DOMA in federal lawsuits. When the case came before the Supreme Court, DOMA was defended by advocacy groups and the U.S. House of Representatives, which was in the unusual position of having to find lawyers to defend a law it passed.
The Court left intact a provision of DOMA that reinforces states’ rights to define marriage. At the moment, states that do not allow gay marriage cannot be forced to recognize ceremonies performed in another state. And the court stayed silent on how its ruling should apply in states that don’t allow gay marriage. But can states’ traditional marriage laws stand now that the federal government is enforcing its own definition “to the greatest extent possible under the law?”
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said Holder’s announcement over the weekend was “yet another illustration of the lawlessness of the administration. … 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.”