New rights for same-sex couples

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The Obama administration will continue the extension of federal benefits to married same-sex couples as heterosexual couples, Attorney General Eric Holder will announce on Saturday.

The Justice Department plans to issue a policy memo on Monday, which will allow same-sex couples to be able to file jointly for bankruptcy and will mandate that they will not be compelled to testify against each other in trial, among other new rights.

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Holder will deliver the news at a gala thrown by the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel New York City Saturday night.

“Just like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation's struggle for LGBT equality could not be higher. Then, as now, nothing less than our country's commitment to the notion of equal protection under the law was on the line,” Holder will say in his speech, according to an excerpt.

“As attorney general, I will not let [the Justice] Department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history.” 

Same-sex couples will have the right to file for domestic support obligations, including alimony and are eligible for Justice Department programs that provide compensation to surviving spouses of public safety officers.

Federal inmates in same-sex marriages will also receive the same benefits as married straight couples – such as, exchanging correspondence, having visitation rights and receiving “compassionate release” or a sentence reduction because of the incapacitation of a spouse. Same-sex inmates may also receive escorts to a spouse’s funeral and are eligible to be furloughed in the event of a crisis involving their spouse.

It is the latest move since a Supreme Court decision last year ruled that not extending federal benefits to same-sex couples was unconstitutional. Holder supported the ruling.

The administration has already taken steps to ensure that all same-sex couples are treated like married couples when it comes to certain federal benefits, such as filing taxes. 

Holder emphasizes the changes to be implemented on Monday are the first of their kind in the U.S., and the extension of rights will be available, even if the person’s state does not recognize the marriage. Gay marriage is legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

“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,” Holder plans to say, according to excerpts of remarks that were released by the Justice Department. "And this policy has important, real-world implications for same-sex married couples that interact with the criminal justice system.”

Congressional Democrats have also been active on the issue, pushing legislation clarifying that same-sex couples living in states that do not recognize gay marriage are nonetheless eligible for any federal benefits for which they might qualify – benefits that might not be guaranteed in the wake of the Court's decision.

However, the move is sure to infuriate conservatives and states-rights advocates, who have long-accused the president of overstepping his constitutional powers through executive action on a host of issues. Some Republicans are pushing legislation this year designed to empower Congress to sue the administration in cases when they think it's abused its authority.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) last month cited unilateral moves the administration has made on ObamaCare, as well as the Justice Department's refusal to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, as two examples of executive overreach. 

"He's done this multiple times," Bachmann said. "We can't say that we weren't warned. He's threatened us tonight that he's going to act unilaterally. So, again, we need to take our authority and we need to act accordingly."