National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 28, 2003

Massachusetts gives green light for gays to wed


The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court became the first state court to rule that same-sex couples have the legal right to marry. In a Nov. 18 decision, the court endorsed civil-marriage rights for gays under the equal protection and due process provisions of the state’s constitution.

But the court stopped short of requiring towns and cities to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, giving the legislature 180 days to “take such action as it may deem appropriate in light of this opinion.”

The issue before the court was civil marriage, “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,” wrote Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, for the majority, in a 4-3 split decision.

“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,” she wrote, adding, “[The state] has failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples.”

The ruling was a major victory for gay-rights advocates. At a news conference, Mary Bonauto, lead attorney for the 14 plaintiffs, said: “I can’t imagine for a single second that there aren’t going to be people who are upset with this and will do everything they can to muddy the waters or try to create a legislative issue or to suggest the court didn’t say what it did. And so be it. That’s part of the process.”

Legal action began in April 2001 when the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, known as GLAD, filed suit in Suffolk Superior Court after seven same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses and were denied. The Boston-based group asked the court to remove discriminatory barriers that bar lesbian and gay couples from civil marriage.

The court dismissed the suit in May 2002, but the Supreme Judicial Court agreed last year to hear the case, know as Goodrich et al v. Department of Public Health. On March 4, Bonauto argued the plaintiff’s case before the court. (NCR, April 11).

Lawyers and lawmakers now are coming to terms with the decision. Many see little wiggle room for the legislature, which is controlled by the Democrats with big majorities.

State Senate president and Democrat Robert Travaglini told The New York Times, “The strength of the language and the depth of the decision” clarifies that civil marriage and not civil unions “is the wish of the court.”

However, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney denounced the ruling. “I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. I disagree with the Supreme Judicial Court,” he said.

The ruling, however, comes at a time when polling indicates that most of the state’s residents -- 59 percent overall and 55 percent of Catholics -- support civil marriage rights for gay couples. The poll was commissioned by the Freedom to Marry Coalition, a gay-rights advocacy organization, and conducted by Decision Research. Boston Globe polling has reported similar findings.

Local church leadership holds a different view. Boston’s Archbishop Sean O’Malley said in a statement, “It is alarming that the Supreme Judicial Court in this ruling has cast aside what has been not only that interpretation of the Massachusetts Constitution but the very definition of marriage held by peoples for thousands of years. My hope is that legislators will have the courage and common sense to redress this situation for the good of society.”

Massachusetts’ lawmakers are scheduled to consider such redress. Both houses of the state legislature meet in a joint-session -- a Constitutional Convention -- on Feb. 11 and are expected to vote on a proposed amendment that would bar civil marriage for gays. The earliest such a measure could go before state voters is November 2006.

Journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: