End Marriage Discrimination

The Supreme Judicial Court should rule in favor of same-sex couples and preserve equality

Yesterday, seven same-sex couples had their day in court. The couples had been denied marriage licenses and subsequently sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to obtain them. A lower court ruled against them, despite the fact that nothing in Massachusetts state law specifically prohibits same-sex marriages. The couples appealed, and now the Supreme Judicial Court will rule on one of the most contentious marital debates of our time. If the Court decides in favor of the plaintiff, Massachusetts could lead the way in finally ending this discriminatory, outdated constraint of limiting state sanctioned marriage exclusively to heterosexual couples.

Committed couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, should all be entitled to the same legal privileges. Traditional and religious interpretations of marriage have no place in justifying the discriminatory nature of the law, and the Court should consider marriage strictly as a civil contract that provides state protections and benefits.

The state constitution makes a commitment to preserving the inherent equality of all individuals. Prohibiting same-sex marriages violates this constitutional guarantee because it excludes those couples from the hundreds of legal benefits and protections marital status accords. Marriages recognized by the state grant a spouse the right to make medical decisions for a sick or incapacitated partner and allow for special hospital visitation rights. The court has already ruled that same-sex couples can jointly adopt children, but without the legal rights derived from a civil marriage, this opportunity lacks the legal security guaranteed to married couples.

Married couples can also share pension plans and insurance benefits. In 1999, the Supreme Judicial Court struck down a policy that extended health benefits to partners of homosexual employees in Boston—ruling it violated the state’s legal definition of dependents because the couples were not actually married. By extending the legal definition of marriage, the state would eliminate the present discrimination.

Some argue that it is important to preserve the sanctity of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But the notion of preserving this traditional view of marriage—for the sake of custom—is far less important than preserving the equal rights and opportunities guaranteed to all people under the Constitution. With 4,400 out-of-state couples having already made the trek to Vermont to obtain civil unions, it is clear there is a pressing need to alter our legal interpretations in accord with our changing social customs.

Some critics also argue that changing the legal definition should be reserved to state legislators, but now that the issue is one of constitutionality, it should be decided in the courts. Because of the controversial nature of excluding same-sex marriage, states legislators may face difficult political pressures. Just as the protests to prohibiting inter-racial marriages and the marital rights of women were first influenced by the courts, in the case of same-sex couples, the courts are once again interpreting our marriage codes.

Same-sex couples deserve the legal opportunities and official recognition granted to all heterosexual couples that chose to have their relationships recognized by the state. The Supreme Judicial Court should seize this opportunity to eliminate this outdated restriction and advance a more progressive, fair-minded interpretation of the law.