While 38 percent of Americans live in states that recognize LGBT individuals' right to marry, most must cope with a broad patchwork of laws in states that don't recognize their marriages.
That's why the federal government is working to give married gays across the U.S. the same rights when they're dealing with federal programs and legal proceedings as straight couples.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo to Justice Department staff this week explaining the new guidelines to its employees, saying that among other rights, same-sex married couples can apply for federal programs, including the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund. The new policy also extends to married gay couples protection against being forced to testify against a spouse in court and visitation rights in prison, both of which straight couples have long enjoyed.
“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 at a Human Rights Campaign gala in New York.
Holder has earned a reputation as a champion of marriage equality, often comparing the fight for gay rights to the civil rights movement’s battle for racial equality.
Same-sex marriage is recognized in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The federal expansion extends certain rights to those in the remaining states, Holder said, so a same-sex couple legally married in one state can now exercise its rights in a state where gay marriage isn’t allowed.
While supporters are calling this a “landmark announcement,” those who support traditional marriage have come out against the policy, deeming it a violation of states' sovereignty.
"The changes being proposed here to a process as universally relevant as the criminal justice system serve as a potent reminder of why it is simply a lie to say that redefining marriage doesn't affect everyone in society,” Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said in a statement.
The Justice Department’s move will change for the better the lives of many committed gay and lesbian couples, advocates said.
"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," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "Today our nation moves closer toward its ideals of equality and fairness for all.”