BOSTON -- The highest court in Massachusetts, clarifying its stand on gay unions, ruled Wednesday that same-sex couples were entitled to marry, beginning as early as May 17.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruling makes Massachusetts the first state to grant the full rights of marriage to gay and lesbian couples. In clear and forthright terms, the court declared that civil unions or other marriage-like institutions would not meet the state's constitutional standards.
"The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal," the court ruled. Three of the seven justices dissented.
The landmark ruling comes as states across the country are considering constitutional amendments to keep gays from marrying and are passing statutes to protect the union between a man and a woman.
The issue is likely to be troublesome for Democrats in this year's presidential race. The current front-runner, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, long has opposed gay marriage but advocates full legal protection for same-sex couples. The controversy may remind conservative voters that he comes from a liberal state. Kerry did not comment on the court's action.
Wednesday's ruling affirmed the court's November decision granting seven same-sex couples the right to marry -- and extending that privilege to all gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts. The court gave the Legislature six months to establish a law for same-sex marriage.
The justices were firm in responding to a request by the Legislature that the court approve civil unions instead of marriage for homosexual couples.
"The very nature and purpose of civil marriage," the justices said Wednesday, "renders unconstitutional any attempt to ban all same-sex couples ... from entering into civil marriage."
Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Tom Reilly said the meaning of the court's ruling was indisputable. "Same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry under Massachusetts law," he said.
Next week, state legislators plan to convene a rare constitutional convention to consider pursuing an amendment that would limit marriage to heterosexual couples.
Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican who has voiced strong opposition to gay marriage, said Wednesday that he welcomed the opportunity to take the issue to Beacon Hill.
"We've heard from the court, but not from the people," Romney said. "The people of Massachusetts should not be excluded from a decision as fundamental to our society as the definition of marriage."
Calling the issue "too important to leave to a one-vote [court] majority," the governor added, "that is why it's imperative that we proceed with the legitimate process of amending our state constitution."
State Senate President Robert Travaglini, however, urged all parties to "stay in an objective and calm state as we plan and define [how] ... to proceed." The Democrat called the court's opinion straightforward, but added: "What is not so readily apparent is how this legal opinion now figures into the very personal decision each lawmaker must face."
If an amendment passes the Legislature, voters still would have to ratify it, a process that could not take place before 2006. In the interim, the Supreme Judicial Court decision would stand.
Thirty-eight states so far -- including California -- have enacted "defense of marriage" statutes that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. President Clinton signed the federal Defense of Marriage act in 1996.
Amendments banning gay marriage already are under consideration in Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia, Idaho, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Utah, Kentucky, Alabama and Indiana.
The Ohio Legislature on Tuesday approved one of the country's broadest bans on same-sex marriage, prohibiting state agencies from extending benefits to gay and lesbian domestic partners and barring the state from recognizing civil unions granted elsewhere. Gov. Robert A. Taft, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill next week.
In Iowa -- where the state Supreme Court is reviewing a controversial divorce decree granted to a lesbian couple -- foes of same-sex marriage vowed Wednesday to prevent their state from becoming the next Massachusetts.
"I look across the country, and I'm seeing decision after decision [favoring same-sex unions], and I'm just reeling," said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). "I don't think our society can adjust."
Laurie Letourneau, founder of Massachusetts Voices for Traditional Marriage, said Wednesday that her organization would seek a legislative "bill of address" to impeach the four judges who ruled in the majority.
"Remember, they are unelected in this state," Letourneau said. "What they have done is quite ridiculous. To demand something like [same-sex marriage] without letting the people have a say is really judicial tyranny."
And as state legislators prepared to consider the possibility of an amendment banning gay marriage, all 10 members of the Massachusetts delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter urging them not to do so.
The controversy quickly made its way Wednesday into the Democratic presidential contest.
In a Seattle television interview, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean -- who signed the country's first law authorizing civil unions for gays but who opposes full marriage rights -- said a state's decision on the issue "is none of the federal government's business."
Among the other Democratic presidential candidates, only Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton support gay marriage.
President Bush is opposed to any kind of legal protection for gay and lesbian couples -- even civil unions. He said Wednesday's ruling was "deeply troubling."
During his State of the Union address last month, Bush denounced judicial attempts to legalize gay marriage. He blasted "activist judges" who "have begun redefining marriage by court order," and urged that the "sanctity of marriage" be defended through the constitutional process.
Jon Davidson, a senior counsel for the Lamba Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles, a gay and lesbian civil rights group, said cases similar to the lawsuit that generated the Massachusetts decision were pending before courts in New Jersey, Arizona and Indiana.
It was impossible, he said, to understate the significance of Wednesday's ruling. "I think we are seeing history unfolding before us," he said.
Boston attorney Mary Bonauto, who represented the Massachusetts plaintiffs on behalf of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, praised the court for not "putting only gay people into a separate institution" such as civil union.
"Come May 17, when the marriage licenses start to be issued," Bonauto said, "people will see that the only thing that will change is that loving couples in Massachusetts will now have access to marriage licenses."
Times staff writers Stephanie Simon in St. Louis and Nick Anderson and Ed Chen in Washington contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times