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For decades, Massachusetts has enjoyed a peculiar double reputation for political affiliations. The Commonwealth is both the Puritan colony of John Winthrop and the most liberal state in the Union; it was the only state to give its electoral votes to George McGovern in 1972 and is the outdated land that only recently took its Blue liquor laws off the books. The last 200 years were, in a sense, a lengthy experiment in banishing the 17th century from Massachusetts—leaving its reactionary history behind and defining the Bay State as a haven for the progressive principles of tolerance and equality. Two weeks ago, in declaring any ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) took an important step in that direction.
Same-sex marriage is, at its heart, an issue of fairness. The benefits and special status that our government grants two people who choose to make their lives together cannot be restricted to those couples who differ in gender. As the SJC correctly identified, prohibiting gays and lesbians from marrying those they love repeats one of the ugliest and most persistent perversions of American civil society—it creates a second, inferior class of residents not entitled to the full protections and privileges of citizenship. It took too many years for America to realize that it was wrong to prevent women from voting or African-Americans from living as free human beings; bans on gay marriage, though the right they rob is comparatively far smaller, are variations on the same abhorrence.
Ultimately, then, gay marriage is not an issue of Massachusetts law, but of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. And ultimately the federal government must step into its essential role as guarantor of those freedoms to unambiguously recognize the right of adult citizens across America to wed one another, no matter their sex. But with today’s narrow-minded White House, where President Bush takes as gospel that “marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman” and has established a holiday to bigotry in October’s “Marriage Protection Week,” the governments of states like Vermont, Hawaii and now Massachusetts can’t be blamed for not holding their breaths. So long as the suffocating Washington climate continues to rule out federal legislation protecting gay marriage, individual states have no choice but to buck that trend by honoring gay rights one by one. With any luck the Massachusetts state legislature will follow the SJC’s lead as soon as possible—about six months, to be precise—and legalize gay marriage.
Of course, Massachusetts’ evangelical past is never far offstage, and already such unfortunately powerful voices as Governor W. Mitt Romney have come out against formalizing the right that the state’s highest legal body has outlined. In place of marriage, Romney has suggested that gays and lesbians be allowed “civil unions”—contracts with all the legal benefits of marriage but without the name. It is as yet unclear whether the SJC’s ruling would allow this hair-splitting restriction to pass into law. What is perfectly clear to any level-headed observer is that civil unions are an unacceptable resolution to the question of gay marriage, even if they are far preferable to the status quo. The most important priority is that same-sex couples be afforded the privileges of marriage, but as long as they are prevented from taking part in the very same institution as heterosexuals—name and all—gays and lesbians will still be penned in an un-American second-class citizenship.
Romney has simultaneously launched another last-ditch effort to deny homosexuals the rights of other citizens, urging legislators to begin the lengthy process of amending the Massachusetts constitution. For this proud defender of an unfairly exclusive institution, nothing less will suffice than a state constitutional amendment that explicitly bars gays from the institution of marriage. It seems unlikely that this backwards provision will get through the legislative process any time soon, but it is imperative that Massachusetts’ lawmakers take action now to make the SJC’s ruling a reality. Knocking down the barriers to free citizenship is never easy; among those already fully-enfranchised, there are always some petty and closed minds who will do all they can to stop their fellow men and women from enjoying all the privileges of citizenship. With the SJC’s go-ahead, Massachusetts’ egalitarians owe it to themselves to be even more tenacious in opening the institution of marriage to all.
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