LONDON The State Department will begin processing visas Friday for same-sex spouses from abroad the same way that it handles opposite sex spouses.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced the policy change, which is effective immediately, in the consular visa office of the U.S. Embassy in London during a visit to the British capital.
Any foreign national wishing to obtain a U.S. visa for their same-sex spouse must come from a country which also legally recognizes same-sex marriage according to the new policy.
"One of our most important exports, by far, is our belief in equality," Kerry told an audience of consular officers and other embassy staff.
Sixteen countries currently allow same-sex couples to marry, according to advocacy group "Freedom to Marry," most of which are in Europe.
The list includes the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Denmark, France, Iceland, and Brazil. New Zealand, Uruguay, Canada, South Africa, Argentina, andhave passed laws which will allow same sex marriage, but they have not yet taken effect. Mexico has court-mandated legal protections for same-sex couples similar to those in the United States.
In aat the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court justices struck down a provision of the 17-year-old Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denied federal benefits -- like Social Security or the ability to file joint tax returns -- to legally married same-sex couples.
On procedural grounds, the courta case calling for the reinstatement of California's same-sex marriage ban, called Proposition 8, which was overturned by a lower court.
Following those decisions, President Obama asked all agencies to review policies in regard to same sex couples. As a result, the State Department decided to make the change to the visa application process announced by Kerry, which doesn't require congressional approval.
Kerry said that with the new policy, the State Department was "tearing down an unjust and an unfair barrier" that stood in the way of same-sex families being able to travel to the United States as families.
As U.S. visas are granted by the federal government, they will be valid for foreign nationals who immigrate to states in the U.S. which do not themselves recognize same-sex marriage.