Massachusetts' highest court Tuesday issued the broadest ruling to date on gay marriage, saying that the state's constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to wed.
"We declare that barring an individual from the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution," Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote.
The 4-3 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court stopped short of issuing marriage licenses to seven homosexual couples who brought suit after unsuccessfully seeking to marry. Rather, the court gave the Legislature 180 days to come up with a plan to allow individuals of the same sex to wed in Massachusetts.
In its sweeping 90-page decision, the court exceeded previous rulings by reformulating the conventional definition of civil marriage "to mean the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others."
Further, the court ruled: "Whether and whom to marry, how to express sexual intimacy, and whether and how to establish a family -- these are among the most basic of every individual's liberty and due process rights. And central to personal freedom and security is the assurance that the laws will apply equally to persons in similar situations.
"Barred access to the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage, a person who enters into an intimate, exclusive union with another of the same sex is arbitrarily deprived of membership in one of our community's most rewarding and cherished institutions," the court declared.
While supporters celebrated the decision in Goodridge vs. Massachusetts Board of Health in rallies nationwide, opponents condemned the court's action.
From London, President Bush denounced the Massachusetts court for violating the principle that "marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman." And Sean Patrick O'Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, criticized the panel for rejecting "the very definition of marriage held by peoples for thousands of years."
On Beacon Hill -- where a small group of lawmakers has been working for months to craft a civil-union bill that would create marriage-like rights for gay and lesbian couples -- some other prominent state legislators said Tuesday that they would pursue a constitutional amendment to limit the definition of marriage to the union between a man and a woman.
Republican Gov. Mitt Romney said he would veto any measure that extends marriage to homosexual couples. Romney said he agreed with "3,000 years of recorded history," not with his state's highest court.
"Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman," the governor said. "I will support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that makes that expressly clear."
But two of the plaintiffs in the suit were overjoyed Tuesday.
Gloria Bailey and Linda Davies have been a couple for 32 years. "Without a doubt, this is the happiest day of our lives," said Bailey, fighting back tears and fingering a diamond engagement ring passed down through Davies' family. "The most important thing is that whatever lies ahead, we now know we can be at each other's sides."
The Supreme Judicial Court spent close to eight months deliberating before issuing its ruling, which gives same-sex couples in Massachusetts the broadest rights in the nation. The decision was framed around the court's conclusion that excluding gays and lesbians from "the unique institution of civil marriage" violates the state's constitution.
Without the right to marry, the court wrote, "one is excluded from the full range of human experience" and denied "enormous private and social advantages."
Although there is no specific statute in Massachusetts precluding same-sex couples from marrying, common-law tradition has dictated that only heterosexuals could marry. The court's decision cannot be appealed to a federal court because it is based on the state constitution. The Supreme Judicial Court gave the Legislature the 180-day timetable to carry out its ruling.
The panel was adamant that creating a separate, marriage-like institution for same-sex couples would not satisfy the state's constitution.
That solution was adopted in 2000 by Vermont, the first state to legalize same-sex partnerships in the form of civil unions. The "parallel-track" institution of civil union was devised by legislators there after Vermont's highest court ordered them to extend the constitutional benefits and protections of marriage to gays and lesbians.
Although the rights encompassed in civil union do not extend beyond Vermont, thousands of same-sex couples have flocked to the state to formalize their partnerships.
Hawaii and Alaska courts also have ruled gay marriage could not be banned. Both states subsequently amended their constitutions to reserve marriage for heterosexual couples.
Similar cases are under consideration in New Jersey and Montana, among other states. No American court yet has ordered a marriage license be issued to a same-sex couple.
Gay and lesbian couples in California who register as domestic partners are extended a wide range of protections. But Lorri L. Jean, chief executive of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, predicted that "people will be going to Massachusetts in droves to get married -- and then they'll come back to their home states and expect that their marriage will be recognized. It will start a legal deluge."
President Clinton in 1996 signed the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and woman. The law said individual states were not obligated to honor same-sex marriage laws passed in other states.
The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Bush said Tuesday that he would work with Congress "to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage."
But Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the most prominent openly gay member of Congress, said he doubted Tuesday's ruling would lead to a congressional vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
"Republicans are torn by this," Frank said. Some Republican lawmakers want to allow Massachusetts and other states to set their own policies without federal interference, Frank said. Others, while wanting to avoid being perceived as supporting gay rights, "don't want to be seen as anti-gay either," he said.
But former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, president of a group called American Values, said Tuesday that his organization would fight to ensure that same-sex marriage is an issue in the upcoming election.
The Massachusetts decision, Bauer said, "guarantees that this will be a dividing line between the president and any of the Democratic candidates."
In recent months, the move to legalize gay and lesbian marriage in North America has gained momentum. In June, the Canadian province of Ontario legalized gay and lesbian marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down state sodomy laws that same month.
With presidential primary elections set to begin in January, the Massachusetts decision seemed sure to become a central topic in campaign debates.
Democratic front-runner Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, issued a statement Tuesday taking credit for establishing civil unions there. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, also vying for the Democratic nomination, said Tuesday that he opposes gay marriage but believes his state's Legislature should act "to ensure equal protection for gay couples."
Among many faith-based organizations, the Massachusetts decision sparked outrage. Randall Terry, head of the Society for Truth and Justice in St. Augustine, Fla., blasted the ruling as "judicial imperialism."
Terry, who led an unsuccessful effort to defeat the civil union movement in Vermont, said: "What we need for the governor and the Legislature of Massachusetts to do is to tell the courts to go to the hot place."
Roberta Coombs, president of the Christian Coalition of America, said: "It is reprehensible for left-wing judges such as these four
A November poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life showed opposition to same-sex marriage has risen slightly -- from 53% in July to 59%. However, most of the increased opposition came from "highly religious" Americans, who reject same-sex marriage by a 6-to-1 margin.
Justice Francis Spina, one of three dissenters in the Massachusetts case, said the court overstepped its bounds.
"Today the court has transformed its role as protector of rights into the role of creator of rights, and I respectfully dissent," Spina wrote.
Massachusetts state Senate President Robert Travalini, a Democrat, said Tuesday that Senate lawyers already were studying the decision.
"We are not sure what action we can take," he said.
But attorney Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who argued the case before the Supreme Judicial Court, said the constitutional amendment process could not be completed within the 180-day period allotted by the court.
In fact, the soonest a constitutional amendment could be placed on the ballot is 2006.
"We won," Bonauto said. "The law caught up with reality that gay people and families are part of our communities. At long last, gay and lesbian families and their children finally will be equally families in the commonwealth."
Times staff writers Nick Anderson in Washington, Josh Getlin in New York and Mark Z. Barabak and James Rainey in Los Angeles contributed to this report.