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US court clears way for gay marriages
Updated: 2004-02-05 09:31

The Massachusetts high court declared Wednesday that gays are entitled to nothing less than marriage and that Vermont-style civil unions will not suffice, setting the stage for the nation's first legally sanctioned same-sex weddings by the spring.

The court issued the advisory opinion at the request of legislators who wanted to know whether civil unions would be enough to satisfy the court after its November ruling that said gay couples are entitled to all the rights of marriage. That decision had been written in such a way that it left open the possibility that civil unions might be allowed.

Julie Goodridge (L) and her partner Hillary,plaintiffs in the Massachusetts gay marriage lawsuit,speaks to reporters in Boston,Feb. 4, 2004 to discuss the advisory opinion issued by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The court issued the opinion that only full, equal marriage rights for gay couples, rather than civil unions, would meet the edict of its November 2003 decision, in response to an advisory request from thestate Senate.  [AP]
But Wednesday's opinion by the Supreme Judicial Court left no doubt: Only marriage would pass constitutional muster.

"The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal," four justices wrote. "For no rational reason the marriage laws of the commonwealth discriminate against a defined class; no amount of tinkering with language will eradicate that stain. The (civil unions) bill would have the effect of maintaining and fostering a stigma of exclusion that the Constitution prohibits."

Paul Martinek, editor of Lawyers Weekly USA, said that the blunt opinion erases any confusion.

"The fat lady has sung and she's singing the wedding march," Martinek said. "It's clear from reading the majority opinion that there's no basis on which the (court) will OK anything other than marriage."

The much-anticipated opinion came a week before next Wednesday's Constitutional Convention, where the Legislature will consider an amendment backed by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

But the soonest a constitutional amendment could end up on the ballot would be 2006, meaning that until then, the high court's decision will be Massachusetts law. Gay couples could get married in Massachusetts as soon as May, the deadline set by the court last fall.

"We're going to have to start looking for a band," said Ed Balmelli, who put down a deposit for a wedding after the opinion.

The case represents a significant milestone in a year that has seen broad new recognitions of gay rights in America, Canada and abroad, including a June U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Texas ban on gay sex.

The White House called the Massachusetts ruling "deeply troubling."

"Activist judges continue to seek to redefine marriage by court order without regard for the will of the people," said presidential spokesman Scott McClellan.

Senate President Robert Travaglini, who will preside over the constitutional convention, said he would consult with fellow lawmakers about the next step.

"I want to have everyone stay in an objective and calm state as we plan and define what's the appropriate way to proceed," he said. "There is a lot of anxiety out there obviously surrounding the issue but I don't want to have it cloud or distort the discussion."

The federal government and 38 other states have enacted laws barring the recognition of any gay marriages in other jurisdictions. Vermont recognizes marriage-like civil unions that grant gay couples nearly all the rights and benefits of full marriage, such as health insurance, hospital visitation and inheritance rights.

The Massachusetts decision will probably lead to multiple lawsuits about whether gay marriage benefits can extend beyond the state's borders. The right to same-sex marriage would be for state residents only, but the rules are unclear on how it would be enforced.

The legal battle in Massachusetts began in 2001, when seven gay couples went to their city and town halls to obtain marriage licenses. All were denied, leading them to sue the state.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry, and gave the Legislature six months to change state laws to make it happen.

The state Senate then asked for more guidance from the court.

"The dissimilitude between the terms `civil marriage' and `civil union' is not innocuous; it is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status," the justices wrote.

Conservative leaders said they would redouble their efforts to pass the constitutional ban on same-sex marriages.

"This now puts the pressure back on the Legislature to do their job to protect and defend marriage for the citizens of the state to allow them to vote," said Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

Residents and leaders of Massachusetts towns with sizable gay populations saw the ruling as a good business opportunity. "The town can now offer something gays and lesbians have waited their whole lives for," said Provincetown tourism director Patricia Fitzpatrick.

Mark Carmien has a sign in his gay-themed bookstore counting down the days to May 17 — 103 as of Wednesday. His store is located in Northampton, a college town in western Massachusetts that has a large gay population.

"It's now crystal clear, if it wasn't before, that the court meant marriage. The word itself has power and benefits that are intangible," said Carmien, who plans to marry his partner in June. "It's a very brave and historic decision."

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