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Majority opinion

On February 3, 2004, the Justices submitted the following answer to a question propounded to them by the Senate.

To the Honorable the Senate of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts:

The undersigned Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court respectfully submit their answers to the question set forth in an order adopted by the Senate on December 11, 2003, and transmitted to the Justices on December 12, 2003. The order indicates that there is pending before the General Court a bill, Senate No. 2175, entitled "An Act relative to civil unions." A copy of the bill was transmitted with the order. As we describe more fully below, the bill adds G. L. c. 207A to the General Laws, which provides for the establishment of "civil unions" for same-sex "spouses," provided the individuals meet certain qualifications described in the bill. (Footnote 1)

The order indicates that grave doubt exists as to the constitutionality of the bill if enacted into law and requests the opinions of the Justices on the following "important question of law":

"Does Senate, No. 2175, which prohibits same-sex couples from entering into marriage but allows them to form civil unions with all 'benefits, protections, rights and responsibilities' of marriage, comply with the equal protection and due process requirements of the Constitution of the Commonwealth and articles 1, 6, 7, 10, 12 and 16 of the Declaration of Rights?" (Footnote 2)

Under Part II, c. 3, art. 2, of the Constitution of the Commonwealth, as amended by art. 85 of the Amendments, "[e]ach branch of the legislature, as well as the governor or the council, shall have authority to require the opinions of the justices of the supreme judicial court, upon important questions of law, and upon solemn occasions." "[A] solemn occasion exists 'when the Governor or either branch of the Legislature, having some action in view, has serious doubts as to their power and authority to take such action, under the Constitution, or under existing statutes.'" Answer of the Justices, 364 Mass. 838, 844 (1973), quoting Answer of the Justices, 148 Mass. 623, 626 (1889). The pending bill involves an important question of law and the Senate has indicated "grave doubt" as to its constitutionality. We therefore address the question. See Opinion of the Justices, 430 Mass. 1205, 1207 (2000).

1. Background of the proposed legislation. In Goodridge v. Department of Pub. Health, ante 309 (2003) (Goodridge), the court considered the constitutional question "[w]hether the Commonwealth may use its formidable regulatory authority to bar same-sex couples from civil marriage . . . ." Id. at 312-313. The court concluded that it may not do so, determining that the Commonwealth had failed to articulate a rational basis for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples. The court stated that the Massachusetts Constitution "affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals" and "forbids the creation of second- class citizens." Id. at 312. The court concluded that in "[l]imiting the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage to opposite-sex couples," G. L. c. 207, the marriage licensing law, "violates the basic premises of individual liberty and equality under law protected by the Massachusetts Constitution." Goodridge at 342.

In so concluding, the court enumerated some of the concrete tangible benefits that flow from civil marriage, including, but not limited to, rights in property, probate, tax, and evidence law that are conferred on married couples. Id. at 322-325. The court also noted that "intangible benefits flow from marriage," id. at 322, intangibles that are important components of marriage as a "civil right." Id. at 325. The court stated that "[m]arriage also bestows enormous private and social advantages on those who choose to marry . . . [and] is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family." Id. at 322. "Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life's momentous acts of self-definition." Id. Therefore, without the right to choose to marry, same-sex couples are not only denied full protection of the laws, but are "excluded from the full range of human experience." Id. at 326.

The court stated that the denial of civil marital status "works a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason." Id. at 341. These omnipresent hardships include, but are by no means limited to, the absence of predictable rules of child support and property division, and even uncertainty concerning whether one will be allowed to visit one's sick child or one's partner in a hospital. See, e.g., id. at 315 n.6, 335. See also id. at 348 (Greaney, J., concurring) ("The continued maintenance of this caste-like system is irreconcilable with, indeed, totally repugnant to, the State's strong interest in the welfare of all children and its primary focus . . . on 'the best interests of the child'"). All of these stem from the status of same-sex couples and their children as "outliers to the marriage laws." Id. at 335.

After reviewing the marriage ban under the deferential rational basis standard, the court concluded that the Department of Public Health "failed to identify any relevant characteristic that would justify shutting the door to civil marriage to a person who wishes to marry someone of the same sex." Id. at 341. The Goodridge decision by the court made no reference to the concept of "civil unions," nor did the separate concurring opinion of Justice Greaney. Rather, it was the lawfulness under the Massachusetts Constitution of the bar to civil marriage itself, "a vital social institution," id. at 313, that the court was asked to decide. The court decided the question after extensively reviewing the government's justifications for the marriage ban.

In response to the plaintiffs' specific request for relief, the court preserved the marriage licensing statute, but refined the common-law definition of civil marriage to mean "the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others." Id. at 343. The entry of judgment was stayed "for 180 days to permit the Legislature to take such action as it may deem appropriate." Id. at 344. The purpose of the stay was to afford the Legislature an opportunity to conform the existing statutes to the provisions of the Goodridge decision.

2. Provisions of the bill. The order of the Senate plainly reflects that Senate No. 2175 is proposed action in response to the Goodridge opinion. The bill states that the "purpose" of the act is to provide "eligible same-sex couples the opportunity to obtain the benefits, protections, rights and responsibilities afforded to opposite sex couples by the marriage laws of the commonwealth, without entering into a marriage," declares that it is the "public policy" of the Commonwealth that "spouses in a civil union" "shall have all the benefits, protections, rights and responsibilities afforded by the marriage laws," Senate No. 2175, § 2, and recites "that the Commonwealth's laws should be revised to give same-sex couples the opportunity to obtain the legal protections, benefits, rights and responsibilities associated with civil marriage, while preserving the traditional, historic nature and meaning of the institution of civil marriage." Id. at § 1. To that end, the bill proposes G. L. c. 207A, which establishes the institution of "civil union," eligibility for which is limited to "[t]wo persons . . . [who] are of the same sex . . . ."

The proposed law states that "spouses" in a civil union shall be "joined in it with a legal status equivalent to marriage." Senate No. 2175, § 5. The bill expressly maintains that "marriage" is reserved exclusively for opposite-sex couples by providing that "[p]ersons eligible to form a civil union with each other under this chapter shall not be eligible to enter into a marriage with each other under chapter 207." Id. Notwithstanding, the proposed law purports to make the institution of a "civil union" parallel to the institution of civil "marriage." For example, the bill provides that "spouses in a civil union shall have all the same benefits, protections, rights and responsibilities under law as are granted to spouses in a marriage." In addition, terms that denote spousal relationships, such as "husband," "wife," "family," and "next of kin," are to be interpreted to include spouses in a civil union "as those terms are used in any law." Id. The bill goes on to enumerate a nonexclusive list of the legal benefits that will adhere to spouses in a civil union, including property rights, joint State income tax filing, evidentiary rights, rights to veteran benefits and group insurance, and the right to the issuance of a "civil union" license, identical to a marriage license under G. L. c. 207, "as if a civil union was a marriage."

3. Analysis. As we stated above, in Goodridge the court was asked to consider the constitutional question "whether the Commonwealth may use its formidable regulatory authority to bar same-sex couples from civil marriage." The court has answered the question. We have now been asked to render an advisory opinion on Senate No. 2175, which creates a new legal status, "civil union," that is purportedly equal to "marriage," yet separate from it. The constitutional difficulty of the proposed civil union bill is evident in its stated purpose to "preserv[e] the traditional, historic nature and meaning of the institution of civil marriage." Senate No. 2175, § 1. Preserving the institution of civil marriage is of course a legislative priority of the highest order, and one to which the Justices accord the General Court the greatest deference. We recognize the efforts of the Senate to draft a bill in conformity with the Goodridge opinion. Yet the bill, as we read it, does nothing to "preserve" the civil marriage law, only its constitutional infirmity. This is not a matter of social policy but of constitutional interpretation. As the court concluded in Goodridge, the traditional, historic nature and meaning of civil marriage in Massachusetts is as a wholly secular and dynamic legal institution, the governmental aim of which is to encourage stable adult relationships for the good of the individual and of the community, especially its children. The very nature and purpose of civil marriage, the court concluded, renders unconstitutional any attempt to ban all same-sex couples, as same-sex couples, from entering into civil marriage.

The same defects of rationality evident in the marriage ban considered in Goodridge are evident in, if not exaggerated by, Senate No. 2175. Segregating same-sex unions from opposite-sex unions cannot possibly be held rationally to advance or "preserve" what we stated in Goodridge were the Commonwealth's legitimate interests in procreation, child rearing, and the conservation of resources. See Goodridge, supra at 341. 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 holding in Goodridge, by which we are bound, is that group classifications based on unsupportable distinctions, such as that embodied in the proposed bill, are invalid under the Massachusetts Constitution. The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal. (Footnote 3)

In Goodridge, the court acknowledged, as we do here, that "[m]any 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. Many hold equally strong religious, moral, and ethical convictions that same-sex couples are entitled to be married, and that homosexual persons should be treated no differently than their heterosexual neighbors." Id. at 312. The court stated then, and we reaffirm, that the State may not interfere with these convictions, or with the decision of any religion to refuse to perform religious marriages of same-sex couples. Id. at 337-338 n.29. These matters of belief and conviction are properly outside the reach of judicial review or government interference. But neither may the government, under the guise of protecting "traditional" values, even if they be the traditional values of the majority, enshrine in law an invidious discrimination that our Constitution, "as a charter of governance for every person properly within its reach," forbids. Id. at 312.

The bill's absolute prohibition of the use of the word "marriage" by "spouses" who are the same sex is more than semantic. The dissimilitude between the terms "civil marriage" and "civil union" is not innocuous; it is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status. The denomination of this difference by the separate opinion of Justice Sosman (separate opinion) as merely a "squabble over the name to be used" so clearly misses the point that further discussion appears to be useless. (Footnote 4) If, as the separate opinion posits, the proponents of the bill believe that no message is conveyed by eschewing the word "marriage" and replacing it with "civil union" for same-sex "spouses," we doubt that the attempt to circumvent the court's decision in Goodridge would be so purposeful. For no rational reason the marriage laws of the Commonwealth discriminate against a defined class; no amount of tinkering with language will eradicate that stain. The bill would have the effect of maintaining and fostering a stigma of exclusion that the Constitution prohibits. It would deny to same-sex "spouses" only a status that is specially recognized in society and has significant social and other advantages. The Massachusetts Constitution, as was explained in the Goodridge opinion, does not permit such invidious discrimination, no matter how well intentioned.

The separate opinion maintains that, because same-sex civil marriage is not recognized under Federal law and the law of many States, there is a rational basis for the Commonwealth to distinguish same-sex from opposite-sex "spouses." Post at . There is nothing in the bill, including its careful and comprehensive findings (see Senate No. 2175, § 1), to suggest that the rationale for the bill's distinct nomenclature was chosen out of deference to other jurisdictions. This is but a post hoc, imaginative theory created in the separate opinion to justify different treatment for a discrete class. Even if the different term were used for the reason the separate opinion posits, and not in order to label the unions of same-sex couples as less worthy than those of opposite sex couples, we would remain unpersuaded. "Our concern," as the court stated in Goodridge, "is with the Massachusetts Constitution as a charter of governance for every person properly within its reach." Id. at 312.

We are well aware that current Federal law prohibits recognition by the Federal government of the validity of same-sex marriages legally entered into in any State, and that it permits other States to refuse to recognize the validity of such marriages. The argument in the separate opinion that, apart from the legal process, society will still accord a lesser status to those marriages is irrelevant. Courts define what is constitutionally permissible, and the Massachusetts Constitution does not permit this type of labeling. That there may remain personal residual prejudice against same-sex couples is a proposition all too familiar to other disadvantaged groups. That such prejudice exists is not a reason to insist on less than the Constitution requires. We do not abrogate the fullest measure of protection to which residents of the Commonwealth are entitled under the Massachusetts Constitution. Indeed, we would do a grave disservice to every Massachusetts resident, and to our constitutional duty to interpret the law, to conclude that the strong protection of individual rights guaranteed by the Massachusetts Constitution should not be available to their fullest extent in the Commonwealth because those rights may not be acknowledged elsewhere. We do not resolve, nor would we attempt to, the consequences of our holding in other jurisdictions. See id. at 340-341. (Footnote 5) But, as the court held in Goodridge, under our Federal system of dual sovereignty, and subject to the minimum requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, "each State is free to address difficult issues of individual liberty in the manner its own Constitution demands." Id. at 341.

We recognize that the pending bill palliates some of the financial and other concrete manifestations of the discrimination at issue in Goodridge. But the question the court considered in Goodridge was not only whether it was proper to withhold tangible benefits from same-sex couples, but also whether it was constitutional to create a separate class of citizens by status discrimination, and withhold from that class the right to participate in the institution of civil marriage, along with its concomitant tangible and intangible protections, benefits, rights, and responsibilities. Maintaining a second-class citizen status for same-sex couples by excluding them from the institution of civil marriage is the constitutional infirmity at issue.

4. Conclusion. We are of the opinion that Senate No. 2175 violates the equal protection and due process requirements of the Constitution of the Commonwealth and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Further, the particular provisions that render the pending bill unconstitutional, §§ 2 and 3 of proposed G. L. c. 207A, are not severable from the remainder. The bill maintains an unconstitutional, inferior, and discriminatory status for same-sex couples, and the bill's remaining provisions are too entwined with this purpose to stand independently. See Murphy v. Commissioner of the Dep't of Indus. Accs., 418 Mass. 165, 169 (1994).

The answer to the question is "No."

The foregoing answer and opinion are submitted by the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices subscribing hereto on the third day of February, 2004.

Margaret H. Marshall, Chief Justice

John M. Greaney

Roderick L. Ireland

Judith A. Cowin

Footnotes

1. The bill also amends G. L. c. 151B by prohibiting discrimination against civilly joined spouses.

2. Article 1 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, as amended by art. 106 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, provides: "All people are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness. Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin."

Article 6 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights provides: "No . . . men, have any other title to obtain advantages, or particular and exclusive privileges, distinct from those of the community, than what arises from the consideration of services rendered to the public . . . ."

Article 7 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights provides, in relevant part: "Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family or class of men . . . ."

Article 10 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights provides, in relevant part: "Each individual of the society has a right to be protected by it in the enjoyment of his life, liberty and property, according to standing laws. . . ."

Because our determination does not turn on art. 12 or art. 16, we do not recite them here. See Goodridge v. Department of

Pub. Health, ante 309, 316 n.8 (2003) (Goodridge).

3. The separate opinion of Justice Sosman (separate opinion) correctly notes that this court has not recognized sexual orientation as a suspect classification. It does so by referring to Brown v. Board of Educ., 347 U.S. 483 (1954), and stating that that case "involved a classification . . . that is expressly prohibited by our Constitution." Post at n.6. The Brown case was decided under the Federal Constitution and made no reference to "suspect classifications." It held that "separate but equal" segregation in the context of public schools violated "the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment" to the United States Constitution. Brown v. Board of Educ., supra at 495. The Fourteenth Amendment does not expressly prohibit discrimination against any particular class of persons, racial, religious, sexual, or otherwise, but instead elegantly decries the denial of equal protection of the laws "to any person" within the jurisdiction of the United States. Similarly, our decision in Goodridge did not depend on reading a particular suspect class into the Massachusetts Constitution, but on the equally elegant and universal pronouncements of that document. See note 2, supra.

In any event, we fail to understand why the separate opinion chastises us for adopting the constitutional test (rational basis) that is more likely to permit the legislation at issue. We did not apply a strict scrutiny standard in Goodridge. Under the even more lenient rational basis test, nothing presented to us as a justification for the existing distinction was in any way rationally related to the objectives of the marriage laws. Now, we answer that this proposed legislation fails to provide a rational basis for the different nomenclature.

4. The separate opinion enlists Shakespeare in the cause of trying to convince us that words are unimportant. But whatever may pertain to two teenagers in love does not disguise the importance of the choice of words employed by the government to discriminate between two groups of persons regulated in their conduct by the government. The separate opinion fails to appreciate that it is not the word "union" that incorporates a pejorative value judgment, but the distinction between the words "marriage" and "union." If, as the separate opinion suggests, the Legislature were to jettison the term "marriage" altogether, it might well be rational and permissible. Post at n.5. What is not permissible is to retain the word for some and not for others, with all the distinctions thereby engendered.

5. Nor are we unaware that revisions will be necessary to effectuate the administrative details of our decision. These alterations can be made without perpetuating the discrimination that flows from separate nomenclature.


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