The decision by the U.S. Justice Department to extend the same privileges to married same-sex couples that it does to heterosexual couples is less an assertion of political doctrine than a matter of practicality.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that the federal government will issue policies aimed at eliminating the distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex married couples in the federal criminal justice system.
“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,” Holder said in a speech Saturday.
The changes are largely the result of a Supreme Court decision last year that declared it unconstitutional to refuse federal benefits to married same-sex couples. In other words, the federal government can’t discriminate against same-sex married couples from states where gay marriage has been legalized.
The move by the Justice Department is another step toward providing equal protection under the law to all married couples. The Justice Department already has approved policy changes by other federal agencies to extend federal benefits to same-sex married couples.
For example, last summer, the Office of Personnel Management announced that federal employees in same-sex marriages would be permitted to apply for the same insurance and retirement benefits as other married couples. Under a new policy at the Department of Health and Human Services, same-sex seniors on Medicare now are eligible for equal benefits and joint placement in nursing homes.
The Social Security Administration now will pay death benefits to survivors of a same-sex marriage. The IRS now treats same-sex marriages equally for tax-filing purposes. And the Department of Homeland Security allows same-sex spouses in this country to sponsor spouses who are a non-U.S. citizen to obtain a green card.
The government estimates that more than 1,100 federal regulations, rights and laws are affected by marital status. Now, with the changes announced by Holder, a significant number of those provisions will apply equally to both same-sex and heterosexual couples.
In court cases and criminal investigations, same-sex couples, like other married couples, will be covered by the spousal privilege that says spouses cannot be forced to testify against each other. Also, same-sex couples will have the same prison visitation rights as opposite-sex couples.
Same-sex spouses of police officers killed in the line of duty also will be eligible for federal benefits like their opposite-sex counterparts. In bankruptcy cases, same-sex couples will be permitted to file for bankruptcy jointly.
The National Organization for Marriage condemned the new policies in a statement last week, saying they “undermine the authority and sovereignty of the states to make their own determinations regulating the institution of marriage.” In reality, though, the effort to equalize the federal rights and privileges of all legally married couples undergirds the states’ determinations regarding marriage.
When states have extended marital rights to same-sex couples, the federal government has an obligation to recognize the status of those couples. The Supreme Court has said as much.
While opponents of same-sex marriage might see this as a threat to traditional marriage, it’s really just an effort to administer the law fairly and equally.