WASHINGTON (ABP) — The first shoe dropped in America's legal debate over gay-marriage when a closely divided Massachusetts court ruled Nov. 18 that a state agency could not deny same-sex couples the right to marry.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's 4-3 decision stopped short of issuing marriage licenses immediately to the gay and lesbian couples who were the case's plaintiffs. The justices gave the state's legislature 180 days to enact statutes creating same-sex marriage.
The decision, unless overruled by a state constitutional amendment, will make Massachusetts the first legal jurisdiction in the United States to sanction same-sex marriage. Neighboring Vermont has a civil-union law that offers same-sex couples most of the legal rights of marriage while reserving the term “marriage” for opposite-sex couples.
In the court's opinion, authored by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, the majority said the decision was a simple matter of interpretation of the state constitution. “The question before us is whether, consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth may deny the protections, benefits and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry,” Marshall wrote. “We conclude that it may not.”
Marshall noted that the commonwealth's attorneys had “failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples” in state law.
She also took care to point out that the court's decision did not extend to religious opinions or sanction of marriage. Noting that civil marriage has been defined in secular terms in the state's law since colonial days, Marshall and her colleagues said their decision was based on secular reasoning as well.
“Many people hold deep-seated religious, moral and ethical convictions that marriage should be limited to the union of one man and one woman, and that homosexual conduct is immoral,” she wrote, adding that other people support gay marriage based on religious grounds. “Neither view answers the question before us. Our concern is with the Massachusetts Constitution as a charter of governance for every person properly within its reach.”
Marshall also referred to the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision, in Lawrence vs. Texas, to overturn state laws banning same-sex intimacy.
“There, the court affirmed that the core concept of common human dignity protected by the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution precludes government intrusion into the deeply personal realms of consensual adult expressions of intimacy and one's choice of an intimate partner,” Marshall wrote. “The court also reaffirmed the central role that decisions whether to marry or have children bear in shaping one's identity.
“The Massachusetts Constitution is, if anything, more protective of individual liberty and equality than the Federal Constitution; it may demand broader protection for fundamental rights; and it is less tolerant of government intrusion into the protected spheres of private life.”
The case, Goodridge vs. Massachusetts Department of Health, began when seven gay and lesbian couples from five different Massachusetts counties applied for marriage licenses in their respective jurisdictions. All were denied licenses. They then filed suit against the state in 2001.
Their attorney, Mary Bonauto, hailed the decision. “This is a very good day for gay and lesbian families in Massachusetts and throughout the country,” she said, according to the Associated Press.
However, Justice Robert Cordy, in one of three dissenting opinions that accompanied the ruling, said the court had overstepped its bounds. “[T]his case is not about government intrusions into matters of personal liberty. It is not about the rights of same-sex couples to choose to live together, or to be intimate with each other, or to adopt and raise children together,” Cordy wrote.
“It is about whether the state must endorse and support their choices by changing the institution of civil marriage to make its benefits, obligations and responsibilities applicable to them. While the courageous efforts of many have resulted in increased dignity, rights and respect for gay and lesbian members of our community, the issue presented here is a profound one, deeply rooted in social policy, that must, for now, be the subject of legislative not judicial action.”
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — a moderate Republican and a Mormon — reportedly criticized the ruling and announced his support for a proposed anti-gay-marriage amendment to the state constitution. However, Romney also has said he endorses the granting of some marriage-like benefits to same-sex couples.
A more restrictive amendment that would ban marriage and all its “legal incidents” for same-sex couples is currently before the U.S. House of Representatives.
President Bush, calling marriage “a sacred institution between a man and a woman,” said, “Today's decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court violates this important principle. I will work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.”
The specter of legalized gay marriage has raised especially dire warnings among supporters of the Religious Right. Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, released a statement shortly after the decision saying the decision was “the wake-up call for both the American public and our elected officials.”
Perkins continued: “If we do not amend the Massachusetts State Constitution so that it explicitly protects marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and if we do not amend the U.S. Constitution with a federal marriage amendment that will protect marriage on the federal level, we will lose marriage in this nation.”
However, a new study, released the day of the Massachusetts decision, suggests support for the Federal Marriage Amendment may not be as strong as conservatives hope.
The survey on Americans' attitudes toward religion and homosexuality, taken by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life nearly a month before the Massachusetts decision, showed 59 percent of the respondents oppose gay marriage. But only 10 percent said they believe the Constitution should be amended to prohibit it, saying normal legislative means would be enough.
Attempts to reach representatives of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a pro-gay-rights group, were unsuccessful by press time.
In addition to the Vermont civil-union law, courts in Hawaii and Alaska have previously ruled that the states did not have a right to deny marriage to gay couples. In those two states, the decisions were followed by the adoption of state constitutional amendments limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. No American court has ordered the issuance of a marriage license to same-sex couples.