But the ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court stopped short of allowing marriage licenses to be issued to the seven gay couples who sued the state Department of Public Health in 2001 after their requests for marriage licenses were denied. The court ordered the Legislature to come up with a solution within 180 days.
Today’s ruling is similar to a 1999 Vermont Supreme Court decision, which led to the state Legislature’s approval in 2000 of gay unions that give couples many of the same benefits of marriage. Courts in Hawaii and Alaska have also ruled that the states did not have a right to deny marriage to gay couples, but the decisions were followed by the adoption of constitutional amendments limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.
But the movement faces an uphill battle in the Massachusetts assembly, which 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, it was nevertheless a victory for gay rights advocates, given the forceful language of the opinion.
“We are mindful that our decision marks a change in the history of the marriage law,” the court said in its 4-3 opinion, written by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall.
“Marriage is a vital social institution,” Chief Justice Marshall wrote. “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.”
She added: “The question before us is whether, consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth may deny the protections, benefits and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry.