READ: Atty. General's Speech on Extension of Federal Rights

Eric Holder, speaking in New York, lays out the changes to come.

BY Advocate.com Editors

February 09 2014 1:04 PM ET

•  The Department will recognize that same-sex spouses of individuals involved in civil and criminal cases should have the same legal rights as all other married couples – including the right to decline to give testimony that might violate the marital privilege.  Under this policy, even in states where same-sex marriages are not recognized, the federal government will not use state views as a basis to object to someone in a same-sex marriage invoking this right.

•  In bankruptcy cases, the United States Trustee Program will take the position that same-sex married couples should be treated in the same manner as opposite-sex married couples.  This means that, among other things, same-sex married couples should be eligible to file for bankruptcy jointly, that certain debts to same-sex spouses or former spouses should be excepted from discharge, and that domestic support obligations should include debts, such as alimony, owed to a former same-sex spouse.

•  Federal inmates in same-sex marriages will also be entitled to the same rights and privileges as inmates in opposite-sex marriages.  This includes visitation by a spouse, inmate furloughs to be present during a crisis involving a spouse, escorted trips to attend a spouse’s funeral, correspondence with a spouse, and compassionate release or reduction in sentence based on the incapacitation of an inmate’s spouse.

Beyond this, the Department will equally recognize same-sex couples for the purposes of a number of key benefits programs it administers, such as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

Another key program is the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program.  It provides death benefits and educational benefits to surviving spouses of public safety officers, such as law enforcement officers and firefighters, who suffer catastrophic or fatal injuries in the line-of-duty.  This program is one way that we, as a country, stand by the families of those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep our communities safe, and we must never do so selectively.  When any law enforcement officer falls in the line of duty or is gravely injured, the federal government should stand by that hero’s spouse – no matter whether that spouse is straight or gay.  Our policy memo on Monday will reflect this principle.

After all, this nation was built – and it continues to be improved – by patriotic men and women with abiding faith in the bedrock principle of equality.  From the suffragettes to the Freedom Riders – from Birmingham to Stonewall – America’s course has been determined, and our future defined, by those who act on the recognition that all are created equal.  By those who understand that this country’s diversity has always been one of its greatest strengths.  And by those who prove every day that we – as a people – are made greater, and wiser, and stronger when we value the contributions of every citizen – gay and straight, bisexual and transgender.  Black and white.  Young and old – whether they live in Washington or Wyoming; Massachusetts or Missouri.  Whether they work in schools or restaurants – on Wall Street or Main Street.  And whether they contribute to our nation as doctors or service members; as businesspeople or public servants; as scientists or as Olympic athletes.

In this great country, we move faster, we reach farther, and we climb higher whenever we stand together as one.  That’s why this Administration, this Department of Justice – and this Attorney General – will never stop fighting to ensure equal protection.  We will never rest in our efforts to safeguard the civil rights to which everyone in this country is entitled.  And we will never waver in our determination to build on the progress we’ve seen – and bring about the changes our citizens deserve.  But you must be our partners in this effort.  Everyone in this room, and everyone in the LGBT community, must be committed to ending all discrimination – discrimination based not only on sexual orientation, but also on race, gender, ethnicity, and national origin.  You must be active in those areas of the struggle as well.

We are, right now, in the middle of marking a number of 50-year anniversaries of key milestones in the Civil Rights Movement – from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in 1963, to this summer’s anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The gains made during that period continue to be a source of great pride – not just for our country, but also for the building where I work.  At critical points along the way, the Justice Department played a leadership role in advancing that historic movement.  This was never more evident than when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sent his top deputy, Nick Katzenbach – whose portrait hangs in my personal office – to literally stare down racial discrimination in the schoolhouse door in order to enforce the integration of the University of Alabama.  It was my late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, who walked through that University’s doors that day.  Without the bravery shown by her – and so many others like her – during the Civil Rights movement, I would not be standing before you today as the nation’s first African-American Attorney General.

And yet, as all-important as the fight against racial discrimination was then, and remains today, know this: my commitment to confronting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity runs just as deep.  Just as was true 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 founding commitment to the notion of equal protection under the law was at stake.  And so the Justice Department’s role in confronting discrimination must be as aggressive today as it was in Robert Kennedy’s time.  As Attorney General, I will never let this Department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history.  We will act.

As we keep moving forward together, we will continue to rely on the passion, the expertise, and the steadfast commitment of groups like this one – and dedicated advocates like all of you.  Important, life-changing work remains before us, and we know from our history that the road ahead will be anything but easy.  Always remember that progress is not inevitable and that positive change occurs only through commitment and through struggle.

But as I look around this crowd tonight – at so many leaders who are helping to build, and taking part in, a movement that is truly historic – I cannot help but feel confident in our ability to keep moving forward together.  And I am profoundly optimistic about the country – and the world – that we will imagine; that we will plan for; and that each of us will surely help to create.  I welcome the opportunity to work with you in this endeavor.

Thank you.

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