Mass. Supreme Court: Gay Couples Entitled to Legal Marriage Rights

November 18, 2003 ( - The Massachusetts high court handed down its ruling today on same-sex marriage, saying the state must give gay and lesbian couples the legal rights of marriage.

>The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s 4-3 ruling stops short of ordering the state to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.   Rather the court carefully framed its opinion to say the state may not deny the rights conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry, according to a Reuters report.

“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,” the court said in its ruling. The court sent the case back to a state court to conform with its ruling, but said the ruling would not take effect for 180 days to allow the state legislature to take any action it deems appropriate.

The case in question, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health , began in 2001 when seven same-sex couples sued the state Department of Public Health after they applied for marriage licenses and were denied. They argue that the Massachusetts Constitution’s guarantees of liberty and equality give them the right to wed partners of their choice.

A Suffolk Superior Court judge threw out the case before it was heard, ruling that the Legislature should decide the issue. The couples appealed and the case was heard in March.   The Massachusetts high court then ran past  a self-imposed deadline for determining cases within 130 days in July (See  MA High Court Still Out on Gay Marriage ).

Employer Benefit Impact

The impact to employee benefit plans, both in Massachusetts and across the country, could be seismic.   As more and more United States employers begin to offer domestic-partner benefits to unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples (See More Employers Offering Same-Sex Domestic Partner Insurance ), controversy around the country continues to pop up.

On the one side are proponents of extending benefits to domestic partners, among them US Senator and Presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut) who promised to reintroduce a Senate bill granting the same benefits to domestic partners of federal workers as spouses currently receive. The legislation would give domestic partners life and health insurance, retirement pay, and compensation for on-the-job injuries. Domestic partners could be gay or straight, as long as they file an affidavit saying they are living together in a committed, intimate relationship, but are not married (SeeLieberman Vows Federal Domestic Partner Benefits Bill ). 

However, critics are quick to object to the notion, as was the case in Montana (See Montana Domestic Partner Benefit Bill Tabled ).  There the naysayers said providing such benefits would escalate insurance rates, degrade the sanctity of marriage, and give special treatment to gays and lesbians.  Cost issues were also brought when Minnesota defeated its version of the proposal (See Minnesota Governor to Sign Labor Bill Minus Domestic Partner Benefits ).