(CNN) — The U.S. government will recognize same-sex marriages as equal to traditional marriages in all federal legal matters, including bankruptcies, prison visits and survivor benefits, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Saturday.
The expansion of such federal recognition will include 34 states where same-sex marriage isn’t legal, but the new federal benefits being extended to those states will apply only where the U.S. government has jurisdiction, Holder said.
For example, a same-sex couple legally married in Massachusetts can now have their federal bankruptcy proceeding recognized in Alabama, even though it doesn’t allow same-sex marriages. In the past, the U.S. government could challenge the couple’s joint bankruptcy because Alabama doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.
Holder’s announcement was revealed in an advance copy of a speech he will deliver at the Human Rights Campaign’s New York City gala Saturday night.
Holder plans to announce that the Justice Department will issue a memo Monday that recognizes same-sex marriages “to the greatest extent possible under the law.”
The move affects how millions of Americans interact with their federal government, including bankruptcy cases, prison visitation rights, survivor benefits for police officers and firefighters killed on the job, and the legal right to refuse to testify to incriminate a spouse.
The Human Rights Campaign, an advocate of gay rights, lauded Holder for his support of same sex marriage in a recent speech to the Swedish parliament.
In an excerpt of his speech provided in advance, Holder compared his work for the gay rights cause to the 1960s civil rights struggle and then- Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s support for equality.
“This means that, 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 under federal law,” Holder said of his initiative.
Under the new policy, the Justice 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 incriminate their spouses.
Also, the government won’t contest same-sex married couples their rights in states where previously prosecutors could argue that the marriage is not recognized in the state where the couple lives, Holder said.
Couples in same-sex marriages will be allowed to file for bankruptcy as a couple. This ensures alimony and domestic support debts aren’t discharged in bankruptcy cases. Federal inmates with same-sex spouses will now have full visitation, compassionate release and other benefits.
The Justice Department’s policy change will extend benefits to same-sex couples who benefit from federal programs such as the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, Radiation Exposure Compensation program and to the families of police officers and firefighters who receive benefits from the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program.
“Just like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation’s struggle for LGBT equality could not be higher,” Holder said. “As attorney general, I will not let this Department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history.”
In a statement, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said that “this landmark announcement will 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 said.
CNN’s Michael Martinez contributed to this report.
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