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Massachusetts de-bans same-sex marriage, sort of

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I haven't had time to read the court's opinion in Goodridge, et al. v. Department of Public Health, et al., but I did look over a couple of newspaper articles about it. Interesting contrast.

The Boston Globe article (headlined "SJC: Gay marriage legal in Mass.") says:

The Supreme Judicial Court today became the nation's first state supreme court to rule that same-sex couples have the legal right to marry.

...The ruling won't take effect for 180 days in order to allow the Legislature "to take such action as it may deem appropriate in light of this opinion...."

...Opponents could fight for a constitutional amendment, but the soonest that could be placed on the ballot is 2006.

Which makes it sound like six months from now, same-sex marriages will be legal in Massachusetts, and nothing could be done about it for another two years after that.

But the New York Times article ("High Court in Massachusetts Rules Gays Have Right to Marry") has a rather different spin on things:

But the ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court stopped short of allowing marriage licenses to be issued.... The court ordered the Legislature to come up with a solution within 180 days.

[T]he Massachusetts assembly ... is considering a constitutional amendment that would legally define a marriage as a union between one man and one woman. That proposal has been endorsed by the Speaker of the House, Tom Finneran of Boston, but other factions within the Legislature support either gay marriage or civil unions between people of the same sex.

While the ruling fell short of what the plaintiffs were seeking,....

And a careful look at the wording of the opinion in the case supports the Times interpretation: the opinion says that the state may not "deny the protections, benefits and obligations conferred by civil marriage." It doesn't say that the state must allow such marriage. In particular, it sounds to me like civil unions that confer the same protections, benefits, and obligations would satisfy the court.

(I gather, though, that the legislature can't pass a constitutional amendment in MA without putting it on the ballot, so the amendment approach may indeed be unlikely to happen anytime soon. But if the legislature starts progress toward such an amendment in the next 180 days, I don't know what the status of same-sex marriage will be during the period before the amendment is decided on.)

Anyway, it's certainly good news, and I certainly think it was the right decision to make. But it's not quite as good news as it initially seemed to be. Sorry to be a wet blanket.

Must run—late to work.

(Thanks for the pointers, Vardibidian!)

6 Comments

According to an AP story on Yahoo!:

Legal observers said the case took a
significant step beyond the 1999 Vermont Supreme
Court decision that led to civil unions in that
state.

This decision, lawyers said, rules that gay
couples are entitled to all the rights of
marriage and that creating a separate class of
marriage — such as civil unions — would not be
acceptable.


So I haven't read the ruling, but AP's interpretation seems to indicate that civil unions won't satisfy the courts.


I am thrilled that the SJC made the correct decision, although I do wish they'd gone a little farther and completely circumvented the legislature. I've already got a battery of polite letters to my local reps and the governor and speaker of the house lined up, and will be putting them in the mail tomorrow. And if things start looking dicey down the road, I'll start making the phone calls. I'm not letting the legislature fuck this up without a fight!


Re Joe's quote: I'll look forward to reading further legal analysis, but after reading the decision, it still looks to me like the court is saying they're leaving it up to the legislature how to address the unconstitutionality of the current situation. I'm no authority, but it looks to me like if the legislature were to create a new class of civil unions that had all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of marriage but wasn't called marriage, that would address the court's concerns. But we'll see.

Jennifer: yay for letter-writing! Yo, other Massachusettsians: you, too, can write letters to your legislature about this, if you're so inclined. The next step appears to be in their hands, one way or another; let them know what you think.


As the old joke goes, I'm leaving before they make it mandatory.

Seriously, it's a bit odd to be leaving the state just as this is going on. I may still write to my state legislators; I don't have to tell them I won't be voting in the next election.


Jed-- The correct spelling of "Massachussettsian" is "Bay Stater" :-)


No no no, Will, you've got it all wrong. The correct spelling is "Masshole."