Speaking at an event by a gay lobby group in New York on Saturday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will treat same-sex marriage on par with traditional marriage in all federal legal matters, even in states where gay marriage is not legal.
On Monday, the Justice Department will send "formal instruction" to all its employees "to give lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law," according to excerpts of Holder's speech.
"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 the Human Rights Campaign's New York City gala, according to Reuters.
Federal benefits, including bankruptcies, prison visits and survivor benefits, will also be extended to 34 states that do now allow same-sex marriage, but those benefits will apply only where the federal government has jurisdiction, Holder added, according to CNN.
The government will not contest rights of gay married couples in states where previously prosecutors could argue that the marriage is not recognized in the state where the couple lives, Holder added.
"Just like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation's struggle for LGBT equality could not be higher," Holder said. "As attorney general, I will not let this Department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history."
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, praised the action.
"This landmark announcement will change the lives of countless committed gay and lesbian couples for the better," Griffin said in a statement. "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."
However, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins strongly condemned the move.
"The news that the Justice Department will extend sweeping recognition to 'marriages' of same-sex couples, even in states that do not recognize such unions, is yet another illustration of the lawlessness of this administration," Perkins said in a statement.
"While the Supreme Court's ruling in the Windsor case last summer required the federal government to recognize such unions in states which also recognize them, the Court was conspicuously silent on the status of such couples when they reside in a state which considers them unmarried," Perkins pointed out. "The Obama administrations haste to nevertheless recognize such unions in every state actually runs counter to the Windsor decisions emphasis on the federal government's obligation to defer to state definitions of marriage."
Holder's announcement "illustrates the importance of Congressional action to pass the State Marriage Defense Act (H.R. 3829), introduced by Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas)," Perkins added. "It would require the federal government to defer to state definitions of marriage -- as required by Windsor -- by not treating persons as 'married' when they are unmarried according to the law of their state of legal residence."
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, also criticized Holder's announcement.
"The American public needs to realize how egregious and how dangerous these usurpations are and how far-reaching the implications can be," Brown said in a statement. "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."
Three years ago, the Obama administration had announced it would stop defending cases in court involving the Defense of Marriage Act. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the DOMA was unconstitutional.