The federal government is set to view same-sex marriages on the same legal ground as heterosexual couples in legal proceedings, such as when filing bankruptcy and paying debts, a move that has some groups fuming.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder on Saturday said his office was preparing to approve legislation that would remove the legal 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 told a gala meeting of Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBT lobbying organization in the United States.
The announcement comes after the US Supreme Court ruled in June that it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex marriage partners federal benefits in states where the practice is legal.
Gay marriages are legal in just 17 of the 50 US states, as well as the District of Columbia.
On Monday, the Justice Department will "formally instruct all department employees to give lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law," according to early excerpts of the statement released by Reuters.
Last year’s controversial Supreme Court ruling did away with a section of a 1996 federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which once prevented the US government from legally recognizing same-sex unions.
Since then, the Obama administration has been rewriting federal rules that permit same-sex partners to enjoy the same federal benefits extended to heterosexual couples, including the handling of debts and taxes, as well as “spousal privilege,” which is the right to refuse to give testimony that may force an individual to incriminate his or her spouse.
The new legislation applies even in cases where same-sex marriages are not recognized in the state where the couple lives.
In a speech last week to the Swedish parliament, Holder defended the decision to recognize same-sex unions, calling it “the civil rights challenge of our time.”
"Just as our forebears came together to overcome tremendous adversity - and to forge the more just and more equal societies in which we now live - so, too, must the current generation rise to the causes that have become the struggles of our day; the defining civil rights challenges of our time," he said.
"I believe one of these struggles is the fight for equality for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender - or LGBT - citizens."
Holder praised Swedish lawmakers for legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009, making the Scandinavian country the seventh country to pass such legislation.
Meanwhile, opponents of same-sex marriages had harsh words for Holder's action.
"The news that the Justice Department will extend sweeping recognition to 'marriages' of same-sex couples, even in states that do not recognize such unions, is yet another illustration of the lawlessness of this administration," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement.
Perkins questioned why the Supreme Court last year required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in states that allow them, while at the same time remaining "conspicuously silent on the status of such couples when they reside in a state which considers them unmarried."
"The Obama administration's haste to nevertheless recognize such unions in every state actually runs counter to the Windsor decision's emphasis on the federal government's obligation to defer to state definitions of marriage," he added, referring to the Supreme Court ruling in the United States v. Windsor case, which opened the door to the federal government recognizing such unions.
Meanwhile, the debate on same-sex marriage continues to rage in
many states, including Utah, where a federal judge said in
December that the state’s ban was unconstitutional.
The real fireworks, however, erupted after Holder said the federal government would recognize those 1,300 marriage licenses obtained in Utah, after a federal judge declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriages as “unconstitutional.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert released a statement saying he was "very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah."
State opponents of gay marriage accused Holder and the Justice Department of using excessive federal powers in a matter that involves state jurisdiction.