The Justice Department issued a new policy memorandum that formally instructed all department employees to give lawful same-sex marriages equal recognition — a first in the history of the nation’s judicial system.
“It is the Department’s policy, to the extent federal law permits, to recognize lawful same-sex marriages as broadly as possible, and to recognize all marriages valid in the jurisdiction where the marriage was celebrated,” regardless of where the married individuals reside, the memo said.
On Saturday, Attorney General Eric Holder told an audience of reporters, celebrities and activists at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel that his department would not be a “bystander” to ensuring equal rights for the LGBT-community.
"Just like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation's struggle for LGBT equality couldn't be higher," Holder's said in his speech. "As Attorney General, I will not let this Department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history,” drawing applause from the audience.
The memo continued the Obama administration's recent push to put its stamp on the national struggle to achieve marriage equality.
Monday's action discussed new guidelines for benefit and compensation programs such as the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, and the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program that “will recognize same-sex marriages valid in the place where they were celebrated, regardless of where the married individuals reside, to the extent consistent with law.”
Gay couples now have the right to invoke “marital privilege,” meaning they can’t be forced to testify against their spouse in court, even in states that do not currently permit same-sex marriage.
Under the new guidelines, same-sex couples can now also jointly file for bankruptcy, and they will be allowed the same visitation rights as their heterosexual counterparts at the nation’s federal prisons.
"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 said on Saturday.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex couples to get married. In states that do not allow same-sex marriage, spousal privilege for same-sex couples is not guaranteed.
Monday, one more state appeared to be on the path to allow gay couples to legally marry. Holder said Nevada dropped its defense of the state's gay marriage ban, citing a change in the legal landscape.
Al Jazeera. Lisa De Bode contributed to this report.