Massachusetts's highest court ruled 4-3 Tuesday that same-sex couples are legally entitled to wed under the state constitution and that licenses will be issued in 180 days. Those six months have been set aside to allow the state's legislature to respond to the ruling, either legalizing full marriage rights for same-sex couples or blocking those rights through a constitutional amendment. However, such a constitutional amendment could not be passed until 2006 at the earliest, well past the high court's deadline.
The ruling surpasses a 1999 Vermont Supreme Court decision, which led to its legislature's approval in 2000 of civil unions, which give same-sex couples in that state separate-but-equal status. "Marriage is a vital social institution," Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote in the long-awaited Massachusetts ruling. "The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support. It brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return, it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations."
The Massachusetts legislature already is considering a constitutional amendment that would legally define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The state's powerful speaker of the house, Tom Finneran of Boston, has endorsed this proposal. A similar initiative, launched by citizens, was defeated by the legislature last year on a procedural vote.
Gay and lesbian activists have been cheered by a series of advances this year, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down sodomy laws, the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, and a Canadian appeals court ruling that it was unconstitutional to deny gay couples the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples. Belgium and the Netherlands also have legalized gay marriage.
In addition to Vermont, courts in Hawaii and Alaska have previously ruled that the states did not have a right to deny marriage to gay couples. In those two states, the decisions were followed by the adoption of constitutional amendments limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. No American court has ordered the issuance of a marriage license--a privilege reserved for heterosexual couples.
The U.S. House is currently considering a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage. President Bush, although he believes marriage should be defined as a union between one man and one woman, recently said that a constitutional amendment is not yet necessary.
Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has repeatedly said that marriage should be preserved as a union between a man and a woman, but he has declined to comment on what he would do if gay marriages are legalized. On the campaign trail last fall, Romney said he would veto gay-marriage legislation. He supports giving benefits such as inheritance and hospital visitation rights to gay couples.