Federal law encompasses same-sex couples

This past weekend in New York City, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an extension of federal marriage rights to encompass same-sex couples. The new ruling will apply to federal matters in all states, including those which have banned same-sex marriages. Speaking in New York City, Holder insisted that the Department of Justice would not be “a bystander during this important moment in history,” a fitting approach to what should no longer be a contentious issue.

Under the policy change, same-sex couples will be afforded the same visitation rights as their heterosexual counterparts. In federal court cases, same-sex couples will now be covered under the spousal privilege, preventing spouses from being forced to testify against one another. A shortcoming of this federal law is its lack of influence on state laws. Unfortunately, some states are still steadfast in their opposition of same-sex marriage and this move by Holder fails to address that underlying problem for the time being.

Implementation of the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples is not likely to have a substantial effect due to the conflicts between state and federal laws. Same-sex marriage is unrecognized in 34 states and, because marriage is almost always handled on the state level, state courts are not bound by Holder’s announcement. Impending conflict between state and federal systems can only be rectified by definitive changes in state laws.

The announcement is a stellar show of support from the Obama administration. Finally, the federal government will treat homosexual couples the same under the law as they would heterosexual couples. Holder’s move is another step in implementing repercussions of last summer’s Supreme Court ruling, which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and sparked intense debates regarding how the Obama administration would approach enforcing the decision.

Public opinion has shifted drastically in support of same-sex marriage in the United States and, if history is any indication, amendments in policy will inevitably follow. The Obama administration’s strides to respond quickly to this growing support shows that same-sex marriage as an issue that mobilizes voters. While the changes in the Department of Justice may not represent an immediate reshaping of the rights of same-sex couples, they are a necessary catalyst for future steps.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 10 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]

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