By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder plans widespread changes within the U.S. Justice Department to benefit same-sex married couples, such as recognizing a legal right for them not to testify against each other in civil and criminal cases, according to excerpts of a speech on Saturday.
The changes are designed to keep pushing for gay rights in the United States after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year said the federal government cannot refuse to recognize same-sex marriages carried out in states that allow them.
U.S. law has long included a "spousal privilege" that protects communications between a husband and wife so they cannot be forced to be incriminating witnesses against each other in court.
In addition to extending the privilege to same-sex couples in situations involving the Justice Department, Holder said he plans to put same-sex couples on the same legal footing as opposite-sex couples in other areas, including how certain debts are handled in federal bankruptcy proceedings and visitation policies at federal prisons.
"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 in the speech excerpts released in advance.
Holder was scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. (midnight GMT) in New York at an event for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights lobbying organization.
A written memo to department employees will follow on Monday.
The memo will "formally instruct all department employees to give lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law," according to the excerpts.
The Supreme Court in June struck down part of a 1996 federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Edith Windsor, a lesbian widow, sued after the government forced her to pay additional estate taxes because it did not recognize her marriage.
Since then, President Barack Obama's administration has aggressively implemented the ruling in contexts such as immigration and federal employee benefits.
Holder will also make same-sex married couples equally eligible for death benefits paid to the surviving spouses of law enforcement officers who have died on duty and for benefits from the September 11 victims' compensation fund, according to the speech excepts. The Justice Department runs both programs.
Comparing the gay-rights movement to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when Robert Kennedy served four years as attorney general, Holder said it was important for his department to act. "As attorney general, I will not let this department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history," he said, according to the excerpts.
Only 13 U.S. states have legalized gay marriage. In states where same-sex marriage is not legal, spousal privilege for same-sex couples is not guaranteed. In politically conservative Kentucky, for example, a state judge in September denied a woman's request for spousal privilege to shield her from testifying against her partner in a capital murder case. (http://ftpcontent.worldnow.com/wdrb/news/bobbijo.pdf)
(Editing by Doina Chiacu and James Dalgleish)