The court concluded, ”We declare that 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 ruling closely matches the 1999 Vermont Supreme Court decision, which in 2000 led to that state’s legislature approving civil unions that give couples many of the same benefits of marriage.
While seen as a victory for gay rights advocates, the decision itself does not make it immediately possible for seven same-sex couples who sued the state to receive marriage licenses since the court left the details of the issue to the legislature.
Attorney Mary Bonauto, who represented the seven gay couples who sued the state, said the only task the court assigned to state lawmakers is to come up with changes in state law that will allow gay couples to marry by the end of the 180-day period.
“This is a very good day for gay and lesbian families in Massachusetts and throughout the country,” Bonauto said.
Republican Gov. Mitt Romney criticized the ruling, saying: “Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman. I will support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that makes that expressly clear. Of course, we must provide basic civil rights and appropriate benefits to nontraditional couples, but marriage is a special institution that should be reserved for a man and a woman.”
Opponents of same-sex marriage may now have to pin their hopes on the constitutional amendment currently under consideration in the state legislature. The state’s powerful Speaker of the House, Tom Finneran of Boston, has endorsed this proposal. Such a ban could not be enacted in Massachusetts until 2006 because it takes several years to change the state’s Constitution.
Another group of state lawmakers has been reportedly working to craft civil union legislation similar to Vermont’s law.
The Massachusetts case began in 2001, when seven gay couples went to their city and town halls to obtain marriage licenses. All were denied licenses and then sued the state Department of Public Health, which administers the state’s marriage laws.
The couples appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court after a Suffolk Superior Court judge threw out the case in 2002, ruling that nothing in state law gives gay couples the right to marry.
Gay and lesbian advocates in the United States had been cheered by a series of advances this year, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down anti-sodomy laws and the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.