Justice Department Extends New Privileges To Gay Marriages

Attorney General Eric Holder has directed the Justice Department to give same-sex married couples "full and equal recognition." This means they will now have spousal privileges in federal courts. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with justice correspondent Carrie Johnson about the policy shift and what it means for same-sex couples.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

We have news now of a major shift in policy. The U.S. attorney general will direct Justice Department employees to give same-sex married couples full and equal recognition. The move by Eric Holder is the latest step in a wave of developments around the country over the debate about gay marriage rights.

With us here to talk about that is NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Carrie, we know the Obama administration supports same-sex marriage. So what does this action by the Justice Department mean?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It applies in federal courts and U.S. proceedings where the Justice Department is representing the government. And one example that may make the most sense to people involves something called marital privilege. For many, many years now, opposite sex married couples have not been forced to testify against each other or incriminate each other. And Eric Holder says that now is going to apply to same-sex married couples as well, even if they live in states that don't recognize their marriages.

Several other real world implications, things like in the bankruptcy courts, same-sex married couples will now be able to file jointly for bankruptcy. And in federal prisons, inmates who are married to same-sex spouses will be able to petition to get out to attend funerals for those spouses and enjoy other visitation privileges.

Finally, the Justice Department administered several grant and fundraising programs for spouses of law enforcement officers who have died. And Eric Holder says that under his new policy directive, same-sex spouses - surviving same-sex spouses will be eligible for those financial benefits too.

RATH: Is Attorney General Holder saying anything about why he's acting now?

JOHNSON: Well, of course, there was the big Supreme Court ruling last year where the court voted to invalidate a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between one man and one woman under federal law. The Justice Department has been leading the effort across the Obama administration to implement those changes. And the Homeland Security Department and IRS have already been on board with some changes in their departments.

But Eric Holder says it's really important for him, as the chief law enforcement officer in the country, to be taking a lead on this because he believes the LGBT struggle is the civil rights struggle of our time. And he says he doesn't want his Justice Department to be a bystander.

RATH: Hmm. Many states still have formal bans on same-sex marriage. How is this change going to affect them?

JOHNSON: Holder says this change will apply to federal cases and cases where the U.S. government is involved. But he will recognize some of these rights and privileges no matter what certain states say about whether they recognize the marriages. And, of course, Arun, there are huge fights moving through the courts now over same-sex marriage bans in states like Utah and Oklahoma and Virginia and many others.

The Supreme Court last year did not create or carve out a constitutional right to marry. But that issue, many people believe, is going to get back up to the high court sometime in the next few years, and one of those cases I mentioned may be the vehicle to get there.

RATH: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

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