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Expanded menu of federal rights for married same-sex couples

Until last year, the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress in 1996, which stated that legal marriage could only exist between a heterosexual couple, stood as a challenge to married same-sex couples seeking to claim federal benefits.

And then, following a ruling by the United States Supreme Court last year, things began to untangle in material fashion as spokespersons in one federal agency after the other began stepping forward to announce new and more inclusive policy changes. Those centrally included the following:

  • No prohibition going forward against legally married gay couples filing federal tax returns jointly, with the IRS allowing filings even from residents of states not recognizing same-sex marriage, such as Arkansas
  • Military spousal benefits available to same-sex couples
  • Extension of benefits to legally married same-sex spouses of federal workers

Slightly more than a week ago, United States Attorney General Eric Holder announced yet a further expansion of federal rights for same-sex marriage partners. Holder said that the Department of Justice will work “to ensure that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections and rights as opposite-sex marriages under federal law.”

Holder immediately mentioned the right of a gay married partner to decline to offer testimony against his or her spouse in a civil or criminal proceeding. He also stated that same-sex spouses will be able to file for federal bankruptcy protection jointly, and that federal prisoners in same-sex marriages will have the same rights as inmates in opposite-sex marriages.

Unsurprisingly, Holder’s announcement was both praised and criticized. One gay-rights advocacy group said that the long-term implications of the policy changes will be “profound” for their promotion of equality. A spokesperson for the National Organization for Marriage countered that the changes “undermine the authority and sovereignty of the states” to regulate marriage.

Source: ABC News, "Holder applies same-sex marriage ruling to Justice," Pete Yost, Feb. 8, 2014

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