November 19, 2003 at 12:54 PM CST - Updated June 25 at 5:18 AM
Now that Massachusetts' highest court has declared that gay couples have the right to marry under the state constitution, the political debate begins over how the Legislature should react.
In its 4-3 decision, the Supreme Judicial Court gave the Legislature 180 days to rewrite the state's marriage laws for the benefit of gay couples.
"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 seven gay couples who filed the suit and their attorney argue that the decision leaves state lawmakers little leeway to do anything but change state marriage statutes to reflect the court's decision.
But legal experts and some opponents said the decision - while emphatically supporting a gay right to marriage - is ambiguous and leaves open the possibility of civil unions similar to those practiced in Vermont.
Vermont's high court issued a similar decision in 1999 but told the Legislature it could allow gay couples to marry or create a similar institution that confers all the rights and benefits of marriage. Lawmakers chose the second route.
The ruling in Massachusetts was another milestone in a year that has seen a significant expansion of gay rights around the world, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June striking a Texas ban on gay sex. Canadian courts also legalized gay marriage over the summer.
The issue of gay marriage and civil union is not new to Massachusetts' Legislature, which for more than two years has been grappling with a constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions. It also is considering several civil union bills.
Following Tuesday's decision, several lawmakers and Republican Gov. Mitt Romney vowed to pursue the constitutional amendment banning same sex-unions, which could lead to a statewide vote in 2006. A joint session of the House and Senate, which rejected the amendment last year, is scheduled to meet to debate the measure in February.
To go on the ballot in November 2006, the amendment would have to be approved by the end of this legislative session in December 2004, and again during the 2005-2006 session.
Despite its ambiguities, Tuesday's decision was hailed by gay rights advocates, who have long fought for inclusion of same sex couples in the institution of marriage.
"This is a historic day for equality in the commonwealth," said Rep. Alice Wolf, a Democrat. "It very clearly says that fairness and equality under the law are the bedrocks of our constitution and must apply to everyone."
Others, including some of the dissenting justices, argued that the court made a decision that should rightfully have been made by elected officials.
"I have always believed in treating people fairly," Attorney General Tom Reilly said in a statement. "But I also believe that such a profound change in social policy should have been decided by the Legislature, not the courts."
Tuesday's ruling was denounced by President Bush, Romney and the Roman Catholic Church. However, for the gay couples involved in the suit there was jubilation, champagne and proposals of marriage.
"As soon as I could, I finally asked her to marry me," Linda Davies said, beaming with her arm wrapped around Gloria Bailey, her partner of 32 years. "She couldn't answer until we could legally do it. And I'm happy to tell the world, she said 'Yes'."
Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.