Massachusetts' High Court to Rule On Same-Sex Marriage

 

Massachusetts' highest court this week took on the controversial question of whether the state should become first in the nation to give same-sex couples the full rights and legal status of marriage.

The justices of the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) heard arguments Tuesday (3/4) in a case by seven same-sex couples who challenged the state's refusal to grant them marriage licenses on grounds that the right to marry the person of one's choice is protected under the state constitution.

The state attorney general's office, which defended the state's right to ban same-sex marriage, argued that the constitution provided no such rights and said it is up to the legislature to pass laws sanctioning same-sex marriage.

The seven couples said they are seeking the same social and legal recognition that heterosexual couples enjoy, to publicly dedicate themselves to each other and legally protect their relationships and family.

Benefits that come with marriage include shared health benefits, hospital visitation rights, emergency medical decision designation, and more than 1,400 federal legal protections and tax benefits.

Marriage also provides an important legal framework to protect individuals when relationships break-up, whether through divorce or death.

"Most Americans take the rights and privileges associated with marriage for granted, while gay couples remain vulnerable to any number of situations, from making decisions for partners in hospitals to pension and inheritance rights," said Mary L. Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), who argued the case before the SJC.

If the SJC favors the plaintiffs in a decision expected this summer, Massachusetts could become the first state to sanction same-sex marriage, although it is not the first state supreme court to consider the issue. A similar case is now working its way through the New Jersey court system.

GLAD successfully argued a similar case in Vermont in 1999. That state's Supreme Court decided that the state constitution guarantees gay and lesbian couples the same marriage benefits granted to heterosexual couples.

But instead of permitting gay marriage, the state legislature created the country's first civil union statute, which allows same-sex couples to register as a domestic partnership. Civil unions provide all of the state benefits of marriage but are not recognized outside of Vermont.

Courts in Hawaii and Alaska also upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry, but legislatures in those states quickly passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Thirty-six states have subsequently adopted similar legislation or constitutional amendments. And Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, which denies federal recognition of homosexual marriage and allows states to ignore same-sex marriages licensed elsewhere.

Opponents of gay marriage in Massachusetts have been trying to pass a DOMA law since the SJC agreed to hear the gay rights case last summer, but they have been hindered in their effort by the state legislature.

A group called Massachusetts Citizens for Marriage (MCM) submitted a petition to the legislature last summer calling for a public referendum on a DOMA amendment to the state constitution. In order for a constitutional initiative to go to a public vote, 25 percent of the legislature must approve the ballot question in two consecutive sessions.

But the legislature refused to vote on the initiative before adjourning last year, effectively killing the move, and the state high court recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by MCM to force the legislature to vote on the issue.

"To squash it was unconstitutional and a violation of the people's trust," said Brian Diver, MCM spokesperson. The group has filed to appeal the dismissal.

The Massachusetts case began in 2001, when seven same-sex couples sued the state Department of Public Health, the agency that carries out marriage laws, for refusing to grant them marriage licenses.

The lawsuit was initially dismissed by a Superior Court judge in May of 2002, but the state's highest court agreed shortly after to hear the case.

The seven couples' lawsuit has garnered international attention and several hundred organizations in the United States and around the world have joined together to file over two-dozen briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs or the state.

Fifteen of the "friend of court" briefs have been filed by groups opposing same-sex marriage, including religious coalitions, legal experts and the states of Utah, Nebraska and South Dakota.

The attorney generals of those states filed a joint brief that argued that Massachusetts would become "the source of profound friction with other states and the federal government" by radically redefining marriage.

"Massachusetts is a good and responsible participant in the national community of states," wrote Brent A. Burnett, Utah assistant attorney general. "To legalize same-sex marriage would mar that record and wreak havoc."

Utah, Nebraska and South Dakota have DOMA laws that exempt their states from recognizing same-sex marriages.

 
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