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Justice Department grants equal protection to married same-sex couples under its care

In a sweeping move, the Justice Department announced it will begin providing equal rights to every lawfully married, same-sex couple under its purview, including inmates in federal prisons and those testifying in courts.

In a memo to be issued Monday, the agency instructs its employees to grant full recognition to same-sex marriages to “the greatest extent possible under the law.” On Saturday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the decision shows how the country is committed to the notion of equal protection.

“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,” he said.

Practically speaking, the decision means that same-sex couples will be given benefits that previously were only extended to heterosexual couples. For federal inmates, this includes spousal visits and the possibility of furloughs in the event of a crisis involving a spouse. Meanwhile in the courtroom, same-sex couples will now be given the right to refuse testimony that might incriminate their spouse, even in states where same-sex marriage is not recognized.

The move has been praised by gay rights advocates. Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin told the Washington Post in a statement that the decision will “change the lives of countless committed gay and lesbian couples for the better.”

He added: “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.”

The action is the latest in a string of decisions taken by the Justice Department to advance equal rights to same-sex couples. In 2011, President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court, prior to parts of it being struck down by the Supreme Court. And earlier this year, he recognized more than 1,000 same-sex couples in Utah, whose weddings had been put on hold.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration has started paying death benefits to survivors of same-sex marriages, while the Internal Revenue Service now treats same-sex marriages equally when it comes to filing taxes.

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