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Equal rights -- and rites

THE MASSACHUSETTS Supreme Judicial Court yesterday invited same-sex couples into the circle of rights and protections afforded by the state Constitution. We applaud a courageous ruling that recognizes the changing social reality of gay and lesbian unions and the simple desire of all people to be treated as equals under the law. The court cleared away the underbrush of political, practical, religious, and semantic arguments and focused on one ringing principle: The Massachusetts Constitution prohibits discrimination rooted in gender or sexual orientation, and that applies to the institution of civil marriage.

"The marriage ban works a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason," Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote in the 4-3 decision. "Limiting the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage to opposite-sex couples violates the basic premises of individual liberty and equality under law protected by the Massachusetts Constitution."

The court suspended the judgment for 180 days, long enough for the Legislature to adjust state law if it finds that necessary. Short of a constitutional amendment specifically barring same-sex couples from marriage rights, however, there appears to be little the Legislature can do to prevent the seven couples who sued the state, and others, from obtaining marriage licenses on the 181st day.

We are not so naive as to expect this ruling to be met with universal approval -- far from it. But we wonder what grave harm to society will be done by allowing same-sex couples the protections and obligations of a marriage license. The ruling does nothing to minimize heterosexual marriage despite the alarm expressed by some. The institution is not a finite pool, where allowing some couples to marry means there is less to go around for others. And, of course, the ruling applies only to civil marriages; religious traditions and beliefs are not affected.

It is deeply disappointing that Governor Romney is already calling for an amendment to the state Constitution to deny marriage to same-sex couples. It would be the first time the Constitution was amended to restrict civil rights. Romney should make good on his promise to accommodate the ruling of the four justices -- three of whom were appointed by Republican governors, as it happens -- not embark on a long, rancorous road to discrimination with an amendment that could not take effect until 2006 in any case.

Romney and others may believe personally that marriage should be restricted to a man and a woman. But to enshrine a condemnation of gay marriage as official doctrine in the state's codicil of rights betrays a miserly impulse we do not believe is shared by most Massachusetts residents. The SJC ruling offers a vision of society in which no person is marginalized. It is a vision worth realizing.

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