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Same-sex marriage (SSM) in Massachusetts

The court ruling: Goodridge v. Department of Public
Health. Civil unions as an alternative to marriage.

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2003-NOV-18: Supreme Court delivers ruling:

The Supreme Judicial Court's of Massachusetts -- the state's supreme court -- finally handed down their long-awaited ruling. 8 They determined that the state violated the state's constitution by refusing to marry the seven gay and lesbian couples who initiated their lawsuit. Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote the majority opinion. She wrote:

"Barring an individual from the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts constitution. ... [marriage is] a "vital institution [which] nurtures love and mutual support [and] brings stability to society....We face a problem similar to one that recently confronted the Court of Appeal for Ontario, the highest court of that Canadian province, when it considered the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage ban under Canada's Federal Constitution, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In holding that the limitation of civil marriage to opposite-sex couples violated the Charter, the Court of Appeal refined the common-law meaning of marriage...We concur with this remedy."  

However, the court did not go so far as to order the state to issue marriage licenses immediately -- an action that was taken by the Ontario court. The court granted the state legislature 180 days to deal with the decision. Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) said that he had to respect the court ruling. He is reported as saying that he will have the legislature create a constitutional amendment which would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. This path has been previously taken by the states of Hawaii and Alaska, after their state supreme courts had delivered similar rulings. Amending the Massachusetts constitution is a lengthy process and could not be completed until at least 2006.

Reactions were as expected:

bullet President George W Bush said that the court decision violated the principle that "marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman."

bullet Lawyer Mary Bonauto, who represented plaintiffs Hillary and Julie Goodridge, said: "A court has finally had the courage to say this is an issue of human equality and human dignity and it is time the government treated these people fairly." 1

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2003-DEC-11: Civil Union query:

Some Massachusetts legislators and constitutional experts "...have decided that the court really meant to guarantee same-sex couples the rights and benefits of civil marriage, and not civil marriage itself." 2 If this is correct, then a the court ruling might be satisfied if the legislature were to create a system of civil unions which gave same-sex couples the same state rights as married couples. This would match the  situation in Vermont. Same-sex couples who entered civil unions would be granted the approximately 400 state benefits given to all married couples. However, they would not receive the approximately 1,050 federal benefits.

Senate President Robert Travaglini (D) told the Boston Globe that the NOV-19 ruling:

"...is probably the most significant decision rendered by the Supreme Judicial Court in 50 years. And there is a significant difference of opinion among legal experts. We need clarification."

He said that the legislators would breath a collective "sigh of relief" if the court agreed with civil unions as a substitute for actual marriage. He expressed the belief that the Senate would pass such a bill, but that passage in the House would be more difficult.

On 2003-DEC-11, the Massachusetts Senate voted to ask the state Supreme Judicial Court whether full civil unions would satisfy their 2003-NOV-18 ruling. 3

"The court invited interested parties to weigh in on civil unions via written legal briefs. At least 10 groups filed briefs by Monday's deadline, [2004-JAN-12]. 4

bullet A brief, signed by 90 law professors stated that only full implementation of same-sex marriage would satisfy the court ruling.

bullet

Professor Laurence Tribe of Harvard University wrote:

"Any equivocation by the justices ... not only would hurt the gay men and lesbians who are counting on the SJC to stick by what it said in November about same-sex marriage, but also would hurt the court itself, by undermining its hard-earned reputation for candor and integrity."

bullet

Robin Tyler, of the Equality Campaign, said:

"What the Massachusetts Legislature does is very important, it's critical.... I hope that Massachusetts has the courage to do the right thing. Fifty years from now, I believe it will be seen in the same light as segregation, and Massachusetts is in the perfect position to make history in this."

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2004-FEB-2: Democratic leaders back marriage for all:

The leadership of the Massachusetts Democratic Party has backed a resolution supporting marriage for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples.

However, Representative Philip Travis, who introduced the Marriage Affirmation and Protection Amendment, said that they are

"...out of touch with the elected Democratic members of the House and the Senate of Massachusetts, and out of touch with the Democrats who are running for the presidency of the United States." 5

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2004-FEB-04: Court rules on constitutionality of civil unions:

As noted above, on 2003-DEC-11, the Massachusetts Senate voted to ask the state Supreme Judicial Court whether full civil unions would satisfy their 2003-NOV-18 ruling. 3

The court delivered their ruling on 2004-FEB-6. With the same close vote, 4 to 3, they stated that only full marriage rights for same-sex couples would conform to the state's constitution. Civil unions for gays and lesbians would be unconstitutional. In an obvious reference to racial segregation, they wrote:

"Because the proposed law by its express terms forbids same-sex couples entry into civil marriage, it continues to relegate same-sex couples to a different status....The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal." 6,7

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2013-NOV-18: Citing the Goodridge v. Department of Public Health today:

As the tenth anniversary of this decision approaches, we can see the enduring influence of this ruling:

  • The opening lines of Chief Justice Margaret Marshall's ruling are repeated by many same-sex couples as a reading during their wedding ceremonies:

    “Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations. 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. We conclude that it may not. The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens. In reaching our conclusion we have given full deference to the arguments made by the Commonwealth. But it has failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples.”

    “We are mindful that our decision marks a change in the history of our marriage law. But the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage is incompatible with the constitutional principles of respect for individual autonomy and equality under law."

  • Later in 2003, the Connecticut Supreme Court cited Goodridge several times when it declared the state's marriage law unconstitutional.

  • Over the next ten years, the Goodridge ruling was cited in 99 court decisions. Perhaps the most important of these was Windsor v. United States in 2013-JUN. It declared the main section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. That section had denied 1,138 federal benefits and protections to same-sex married couples and their children. Its repeal has accelerated the drive towards legalization of same-sex marriage in many states. 9

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References:

  1. Tim Harper, "U.S. court lifts gay-marriage ban," The Toronto Star, 2003-NOV-19, Page A3.
  2. "MFI E-alert," Massachusetts Family Institute, 2003-12-31.
  3. Ann Rostow, "Mass. senate queries court on civil unions," PlanetOut News & Politics, 2003-DEC-11, at: http://www.planetout.com/
  4. Eric Johnston, "Both sides of marriage fight watch court," PlanetOut News & Politics, 2004-JAN-13, at: http://www.planetout.com/
  5. Stuart Shepard, "Massachusetts Democratic Leaders Back Gay 'Marriage'," Focus on the Family, 2004-FEB-2, at: http://family.org/
  6. Jennifer Peter, "Mass. Court Clears Way for Gay Marriages," Associated Press, 2004-FEB-4, at: http://customwire.ap.org/
  7. Rose Arce, "Massachusetts court upholds same-sex marriage," CNN Law Center, 2004-FEB-6, at: http://edition.cnn.com/
  8. "Unofficial Synopsis Prepared by the Reporter of Decisions: Hillary GOODRIDGE & others [FN1] vs. DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH & another. [FN2] SJC-08860," The Massachusetts Court System, at: http://www.mass.gov/
  9. Lisa Keen, "Tenth Anniversary of Goodridge – The Rocky Start of It All," The Rainbow Times. 2013-NOV-18, at: http://www.therainbowtimesmass.com/

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Copyright © 2002 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-APR-6
Latest update: 2013-NOV-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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