The U.S. Department of Justice says it will extend federal protections to all U.S. same-sex couples married legally – regardless of where they live.
That includes couples living in Texas – which has banned such marriages. So what does this federal decision mean for the state?
Federal agencies, courts and officials must now grant equal protections to same-sex spouses. The move comes after a recent speech by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at a gala event for the Human Rights Campaign in New York.
"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, the same protections and the same rights as opposite sex marriages under federal law," Holder said.
Now, federal inmates in same-sex marriages will get equal visitation rights, for instance. Or gay and lesbian married couples are now eligible for compensation from the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund.
"This applies for federal law purposes," says Professor Aaron Bruhl, who teaches at the University of Houston Law Center. "So in a state like Texas that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, the state would not have to recognize these rights for state law purposes. For example, this policy change wouldn’t affect visitation rights for state prisoners or proceedings in state courts."
It does, however, govern federal income filings or bankruptcies.
"By itself, the decision of the Attorney General is just a small step, but there are many small steps that are adding up all across the country," Bruhl says.
The Department of Justice decision follows a landmark ruling last June by the U.S. Supreme Court. In United States vs. Windsor, the High Court struck down a major part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of federal law.
Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, says the Department of Justice is following in the footsteps of other federal agencies.
"The Internal Revenue Service has already previously announced that married couples would be recognized as married regardless of where they lived when they filed their federal income taxes," Smith says. "And the Immigration and Naturalization Service has already announced that married couples would be treated as married regardless of where they live."
An upcoming case could have an effect at the state level. Tomorrow, a federal judge in San Antonio will take up a case challenging a state constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage in Texas.