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John Lewis (left) and Stuart Gaffney embrace outside San Francisco's City Hall shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California in June.
Attorney General Eric Holder has for the first time directed Justice Department employees to give same-sex married couples "full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent under the law," a move with far-ranging consequences for how such couples are treated in federal courtrooms and proceedings.
The directive specifies that such couples can decline to give testimony in U.S. cases that might incriminate a spouse, known in the law as marital privilege. The guidance says the Justice Department won't object to that even if the state where the couple lives doesn't formally recognize the marriage.
It also means U.S. trustees will take the position that same-sex married couples should be able to file jointly for bankruptcy "and that domestic support obligations should include debts, such as alimony, owed to a former same-sex spouse."
And in federal prisons, same-sex married inmates will have visitation privileges, escorted trips to attend a spouse's funeral and compassionate release policies if their spouse suffers severe illness.
Holder is preparing to make the new policy public Saturday evening at a gala event for the Human Rights Campaign in New York.
"Just like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation's struggle for LGBT equality couldn't be higher," Holder will say, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. "As attorney general, I will not let this department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history."
The new policy follows similar moves by the Department of Homeland Security and the IRS after the U.S. Supreme Court last year invalidated a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act which had defined the institution of marriage for federal purposes as limited to heterosexual couples.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, called the decision a "landmark" that would "change the lives of countless committed gay and lesbian couples for the better.
"While the immediate effect of these policy decisions is that all married gay couples will be treated equally under the law, the long-term effects are more profound. Today, our nation moves closer toward its ideals of equality and fairness for all," Griffin says.