ACLU Cheers Massachusetts High Court Decision Not to Deny Same-Sex Couples Right to Marry

November 18, 2003 12:00 am

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BOSTON — Ruling under its state constitution, Massachusetts’ highest court today issued a landmark decision striking a blow against discrimination and making Massachusetts the first American state to no longer deny couples the right to marry solely because they are the same sex.

“This court ruling says that individuals who are police officers, firefighters and teachers who serve in our military and pay taxes cannot be denied the same rights as other couples simply because they are gay or lesbian,” said Matt Coles, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “The court today recognized that a constitution that protects individual rights does not allow government to say that only some families will be protected.”

In a 4-3 ruling today, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts found that the state marriage statute violated same-sex couples’ rights to due process and equal protection under the state constitution. The Court ruled that the statute must cover same-sex couples and remanded the case to a trial court, ordering it to remedy the constitutional violations in the statute. The Court has also given the state legislature 180 days to consider how it may bring state law into compliance with the decision.

“With its decision, Massachusetts has paved the way for other states to protect the rights of other couples — gay or straight — to share in the benefits ordinarily associated with marriage, such as input and access to medical information and medical insurance,” said Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

In a practical sense, today’s ruling will end discrimination against gay couples regarding pension benefits, medical insurance, hospital visitation and inheritance rights. The Massachusetts court’s decision to no longer deny the right to marry is clearly the way to go, the ACLU said, rather than to proceed with a dangerous federal constitutional amendment that would, by attempting to ban same sex marriages and destroy all of the domestic partnership laws and other measures that state and local governments have passed to protect same-sex relationships.

Two provinces in Canada — Ontario and British Columbia — now allow same-sex marriages, and three states — Hawaii, Vermont and California — have some legal mechanism for protecting gay couples. More than 100 municipalities have adopted domestic partnership laws.

“Today’s ruling from Massachusetts shows that the effort by some in Congress to amend the federal Constitution is totally off base,” said Christopher Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “With all the pressing problems that Congress needs to address, it is unbelievable that some want to spend their energy amending the U.S. Constitution to make pronouncements about marriage. It is wrong, unnecessary and unproductive for everyone.”

The Massachusetts case, Goodridge et al. v. Department of Public Health, was brought by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders on behalf of seven couples who want to marry in the state of Massachusetts. The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the couples.

In its brief, the ACLU noted that in much of the country, gay people have no protections for their relationships at all. People continue to be banned from their partners’ hospital rooms, kept out of conversations with doctors about emergency treatment and cut out of survivor benefits when their partners die.

Just last month, the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a five-year-old boy who is being denied the Social Security survivor benefits that ordinarily go to a child when a parent dies. The boy was raised by two women, and his non-biological mother and the family’s principal breadwinner passed away unexpectedly of an undiagnosed brain aneurysm at 38. The Social Security Administration refuses to recognize the boy as her child, even though she raised him with her partner, supported him and gave him her name.

The ACLU pointed to another case in Alaska in which the state denied a woman with dire medical problems health coverage even though her partner worked for the state. Their relationship, the state said, is not one we recognize. But when she applied to that same state for Medicaid, it said she didn’t qualify because she was being supported by her partner.

“Contrary to what some will argue, lesbian and gay families do not get too much legal protection in this country,” Coles said. “Most same-sex couples get no protection at all and suffer horribly for it.”

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