Massachusetts Court Says Gays Entitled to Marry

February 4, 2004 ( Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down its ruling today to clarify its November decision, and said that only full, equal marriage rights for gay couples would satisfy the ruling made last year that gay couples had the right to marry.

The court handed down the clarification after legislators in December asked whether or not civil unions, like those issued in Vermont, with the benefits of marriage without the title, would satisfy their ruling (see MA Lawmakers Turn to the Courts for Civil Union Clarification ).

The decision, because it is based on state law, cannot be appealed to the US Supreme Court. Nor can it be overturned by the Massachusetts Legislature, although there will be a constitutional meeting next Wednesday during which lawmakers will consider an amendment legally defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

However, because a decision would have to be put through two votes by lawmakers and then go through a statewide referendum, the earliest the state could see the amendment on a ballot would be three years. Therefore, the state Supreme Court’s decision will be law, regardless of what is decided next week.

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 argued that the Massachusetts Constitution’s guarantees of liberty and equality give them the right to wed partners of their choice. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November 2003, after hearing arguments in March 2003, that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry, and gave the Legislature six months to change state laws to make it happen. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s 4 to 3 ruling stopped short of ordering the state to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but the wording left many unclear (seeMass. Supreme Court: Gay Couples Entitled to Legal Marriage Rights ).

The ruling makes Massachusetts the first state in the United States to uphold same-sex marriages.

Yesterday, Ohio became the 38th state to pass a law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman (see Ohio Passes Bill to Bar Same-Sex Unions ).