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Celebrating the Goodridge Decision
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 10/29/13
Last updated on: 10/29/13
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Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall.

To celebrate the forthcoming tenth anniversary of the landmark Goodridge v. Department of Public Health decision that mandated same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), which argued the case, has released a stirring video featuring interviews with Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, among many others. The decision was issued on November 18, 2013 and has been crucial in the struggle for marriage equality in the United States.

In the case, seven same-sex couples brought suit seeking the right to marry under the Massachusetts Constitution. The court found for the plaintiffs. It concluded, "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. That exclusion is incompatible with the constitutional principles of respect for individual autonomy and equality under law."

The beautifully-written decision was composed by then-Chief Justice Catherine G. Marshall, who emphasized the worth of same-sex relationships and the importance of marriage.

"Marriage is a vital social institution," she wrote. "The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations. 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."

She continued, "The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens."

The plaintiffs prevailed in Goodridge by a slim 4-3 majority. The court gave the legislature 180 days "to take such action as it may deem appropriate" but offered no further guidance. The decision was imbued with a tone suggesting that only marriage would constitutionally suffice, but many legislators saw in the vagueness of the court's ruling the possibility that civil unions might pass constitutional muster.

However, on February 3, 2004, in response to the legislature's request for an advisory opinion, the court ruled that only marriage, and not civil union, would satisfy Goodridge. The four-judge majority remarked that "The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal." (For briefs making the argument in favor of marriage, see www.glad.org).

Despite the legislature's approval of a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar same-sex marriage but institute civil unions, same-sex marriages began in Massachusetts on May 17, 2004, when for the first time in American history, gay and lesbian couples obtained fully legal marriage licenses. In towns across Massachusetts, in city halls and in temples and churches, overjoyed gay men and lesbians, often accompanied by their children and family and friends, entered into legal matrimony.

Republican Governor Mitt Romney invoked a 1913 law to prohibit out-of-state same-sex couples from marrying in Massachusetts and the legislature continued wrangling over proposed constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage. Finally, however, in 2007, the shadow over same-sex marriage in Massachusetts was lifted when the second proposed amendment was overwhelmingly rejected.

The success was due to strong support from the new Democratic leadership, including Governor Deval Patrick. The rejection of the amendment meant that a referendum on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts could not be held before 2012, but by 2012 same-sex marriage in Massachusetts was supported by a large majority of citizens and was regarded as settled law.

In late July 2008, the Massachusetts legislature repealed the 1913 law that Governor Romney had invoked to prohibit out-of-state couples from marrying in Massachusetts.

The attorney who argued the Goodridge case was Mary Bonauto, director of GLAD's Civil Rights Project, who has been described as the Thurgood Marshall of the marriage equality movement.

Soon after the decision in the case was handed down, Bonauto remarked, "It has taken my breath away to have so many people come up to me and say: 'I had no idea all the ways in which I had incorporated my second-class-citizen status and didn't even know it. For the first time I actually realize I am a full and equal citizen, and I didn't even realize all the accommodations I had been making.' That, I think, is what is transformative."

GLAD's celebratory video features interviews with former Chief Justice Marshall, Mary Bonauto, plaintiffs David Wilson and Robert Compton, and many others, including Freedom to Marry's Evan Wolfson, constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, former Representative Barney Frank, and Bishop Gene Robinson.

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