The landmark decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Tuesday went further than any court yet toward legalizing gay
marriage in the United States.
But couples eager to make their union official can't start lining
up at the courthouse Wednesday. The tribunal stopped short of
ordering the state to start issuing marriage licenses. Instead, it
ruled the state's denial of gay marriage unconstitutional - and gave
the legislature 180 days to resolve the issue. This marks the first
time a high court has ruled that civil marriage between a same-sex
couple is a state constitutional right.
The ruling means that the cultural divide over one of the most
contentious issues in America will likely only deepen from here. Gay
rights activists hope it will bolster their cause in other parts of
the country, while conservative groups are equally determined to use
it to solidify a growing backlash. "This is the preeminent wedge
issue," says independent pollster John Zogby. Now it has even
greater "potential to be a wedge issue in 2004."
In its 4-to-3 ruling, the court held 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."
Unlike court decisions in Hawaii and Vermont, the Massachusetts
tribunal didn't send the decision back to a trial court or
explicitly allow the legislature to create its own solution.
Instead, the court gave legislators and state regulators 180 days to
adapt state law to the more expansive definition of marriage set out
in its decision. "It's a victory" for same-sex marriage advocates,
says Kate Silbaugh, a family-law professor at Boston University.
"This is the most expansive decision there has been."
The court redefines marriage as the voluntary union between two
persons - a definition adopted earlier by a court in the Canadian
province of Ontario. The ruling emphasizes the "enormous private and
social advantages" that only marriage brings.
As a result, Ms. Silbaugh, says the Massachusetts high court is
not likely to accept civil union as an acceptable alternative if
offered by the legislature.
Only a state constitutional amendment redefining marriage as
between a man and a woman could block the court's decision. But the
earliest that could get on the ballot in Massachusetts would be
Reaction to the court's ruling was predictably mixed. Some gay
rights advocates were disappointed the decision didn't immediately
allow same-sex couples to get married. But many still considered it
an important step forward. "The Massachusetts supreme court today
made history," says Winnie Stachelberg of the Human Rights Campaign,
a gay-rights group.
Unlike the Vermont decision in 1999, in which the court told the
legislature to find a solution and which ultimately led to the 2000
civil-union law, the Massachusetts court "made it fairly clear that
anything short of civil marriage would violate the equal-protection
clause of the Massachusetts constitution. …