The Department of Justice issued a memo on Monday ordering all federal employees to "recognize lawful same-sex marriages as broadly as possible" under federal law. The announcement, previewed by Attorney General Eric Holder over the weekend, means that legally-married same-sex couples will now be treated on a federal level just like any other married couple in almost any situation. In many cases, that's even if the couple resides in a state that does not recognize their marriage, as long as it was originally performed in a jurisdiction where it's legal.
The memo (printed below) clarifies how a number of federal departments will handle the Supreme Court's Windsor decision, which struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. For example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) will now allow same-sex spouses to carry on with firearms or explosives businesses in the event of the licensed individual's death. Same-sex couples are also eligible to file for bankruptcy just like a straight, married couple. And any policy from the Bureau of Prisons affected by marital status — for instance, next-of-kin notification and visiting privileges — will apply equally to same-sex married couples at federal facilities. The DoJ itself promised to equally enforce criminal regulations and statutes that depend on marital status. Those include laws barring entering into a marriage purely as a loophole to U.S. immigration law, conflict of interest policies, and laws against trying to influence a federal official by threatening his or her family members.
On Saturday, Holder made it very clear that the memo would represent an across-the-board shift to equal marriage on the federal level, to the extent allowed under the law. Previously, the federal response to the Windsor decision seemed to be a department-by-department process of interpreting specific statutes, and navigating conflicting state laws. Holder told an audience at the Human Rights Campaign what today's announcement means:
“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.”
Meanwhile, the legal battles continue in the states as Utah and Oklahoma prepare to defend their same-sex marriage bans to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, following decisions against those laws in federal court. A panel of federal appeals judges will hear oral arguments on April 10th and 17th, respectively. Many see the cases as possible prompts for the Supreme Court to weigh in on state same-sex marriage bans, as early as 2015.
Here's the full memo: