Massachusetts court rules ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional
BOSTON -- Massachusetts' highest court ruled Tuesday that same-sex couples are legally entitled to wed under the state constitution, but stopped short of immediately allowing marriage licenses to be issued to the couples who challenged the law.
The court, in a 4-3 ruling, ordered the Legislature to come up with a solution within 180 days.
"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," Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote in the long-awaited ruling. "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 Supreme Judicial Court's ruling closely matches the 1999 Vermont Supreme Court decision, which led there to the Legislature's approval in 2000 of civil unions that give couples many of the same benefits of marriage.
The decision is the latest in a series of victories for gay rights advocates, but fell short of what the seven couples who sued the state had hoped to receive: the right to marry their longtime companion.
The Massachusetts question will now return to the Legislature, which already is considering a constitutional amendment that would legally define a marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The state's powerful Speaker of the House, Tom Finneran of Boston, has endorsed this proposal.
A similar initiative, launched by citizens, was defeated by the Legislature last year on a procedural vote.
The Massachusetts case began in 2001, when seven gay couples went to their city and town halls to obtain marriage licenses. All were denied, leading them to sue the state Department of Public Health, which administers the state's marriage laws.
"They seek to secure legally the obligations they have assumed morally, and to situate their family within the social recognition and legal rights that only marriage affords," the plaintiffs wrote in a legal brief.
A Suffolk Superior Court judge threw out the case in 2002, ruling that nothing in state law gives gay couples the right to marry. The couples immediately appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which heard arguments in March, peppering both sides with pointed questions about the evolution of marriage.
The plaintiffs argued that barring them from marrying a partner of the same sex denied them access to an intrinsic human experience and violated basic constitutional rights.
"The right to marry the person you love and with whom you wish to share your life is one of the most fundamental of all our human and civil rights," the plaintiffs wrote in a legal brief. "The desire to marry is grounded in the intangibles of love, an enduring commitment, and a shared journey through life."
Beyond that, they argued that nothing in the state statute dictates that marriage be restricted to a man and a woman. The only restrictions, they said, are that couples cannot be closely related by blood, must be of appropriate age, must have passed certain blood tests, and must be willing to pay a license fee.
In each case, the plaintiffs met those requirements.
The state's Attorney General's Office, which defended the Department of Public Health, argued that neither state law nor its constitution created a right to same-sex marriage. Furthermore, the state's lawyer argued, any decision to extend marriage to same-sex partners should be made by elected lawmakers and not by the courts.
"Although there are also legitimate policy arguments for affording same-sex couples some or all of the benefits now more readily available to married couples, those arguments should be addressed to the Legislature, which ... is the body best suited to decide whether, when and how to make such a radical change in Massachusetts law," the state wrote in a brief.
Over the past decade, Massachusetts' high court has expanded the legal parameters of family, ruling that same-sex couples can adopt children and devising child visitation right for a former partner of a lesbian.
Four years ago, however, the court ruled against a Boston policy that extended health benefits to unmarried partners of gay employees, arguing that it violated the legal definition of dependents. The court, however, encourage the Legislature to change law to reflect the current social reality.
Massachusetts has one of the highest concentrations of gay households in the country with at 1.3 percent of the total number of coupled households, according to the 2000 census. In California, 1.4 percent of the coupled households are occupied by same-sex partners. Vermont and New York also registered at 1.3 percent, while in Washington, D.C., the rate is 5.1 percent.
A key group of state lawmakers also has recently been working behind the scenes to craft civil union legislation similar to the law passed in Vermont.
Courts in Hawaii and Alaska have previously ruled that the states did not have a right to deny marriage certificates to gay couples, but no American court has ordered the issuance of a marriage license -- a privilege previously reserved for heterosexual couples.
The U.S. House is currently considering a constitutional ban on gay marriage, which President Bush has said he would support.
Gov. Mitt Romney has repeatedly said that marriage should be preserved as a union between a man and a woman, but had declined to say what he would do if gay marriages were legalized. On the campaign trail last fall, Romney said he would veto gay-marriage legislation. He supports giving domestic benefits such as inheritance and hospital visitation rights to gay couples.
Canadian courts in Ontario and British Columbia recently legalized gay marriage, leading to hundreds of same-sex ceremonies. Belgium and the Netherlands also have legalized gay marriage.