November 18, 2003 – Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gay Marriage

On this day in history, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (798 N.E.2d 941, Mass. 2003) that the state constitution guaranteed gay couples the right to marry. Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote:

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. We conclude that it may not. The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals.   It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.   In reaching our conclusion we have given full deference to the arguments made by the Commonwealth.   But it has failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples.”

Same-sex marriage in Massachusetts thus began on May 17, 2004, as a result of that court ruling. Massachusetts became the sixth jurisdiction in the world (after the Netherlands, Belgium, Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec) to legalize same-sex marriage. It was the first U.S. state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Justice Margaret Marshall is sworn in as the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1999.

Justice Margaret Marshall is sworn in as the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1999.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney responded by calling for an amendment of the Massachusetts constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. President George W. Bush called for a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution in his 2004 State of the Union address, saying, “Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.”

In 1996, Congress enacted The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (Pub.L. 104–199, 110 Stat. 2419) allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states. DOMA, in conjunction with other statutes, had barred same-sex married couples from being recognized as “spouses” for purposes of federal laws, effectively barring them from receiving federal marriage benefits. DOMA’s passage did not prevent individual states from recognizing same-sex marriage, but it imposed constraints on the benefits received by all legally married same-sex couples.

In July 2009, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government to seek federal marriage benefits for some 16,000 gay and lesbian couples who had wed since the state became the nation’s first to legalize same-sex marriage. She called on the Supreme Court to review the Defense of Marriage Act, contending DOMA was unconstitutional by interfering with a state’s right to regulate marriage under the Tenth Amendment.

Additionally, she contended that DOMA exceeded Congress’ authority under the Spending Clause because the law impacts joint state-federal programs, such as Medicaid and operation of veterans’ cemeteries.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor (133 S.Ct. 2675, 2013) by a vote of five to four in an opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, that Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act was “unconstitutional as deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.” (DOMa section 3 required federal laws and agency rulings, regulations and interpretations to define the words marriage and spouse as referring only to marriages between a man and a woman.)

However, individual states could still ban same-sex marriages. Finally in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, contended:

No longer may this liberty be denied. . . . .No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. . . . It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas, dissented, citing, inter alia, that great legal mind Noah Webster (author of the dictionary), who defined marriage as “the legal union of a man and woman for life.”

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