Tears Of Joy

Eight years ago Hillary Goodridge was kept outside a hospital room while Julie Goodridge, her partner of sixteen years, underwent an emergency Caesarian section on the other side. The only people allowed inside, a nurse told her, were the spouse and immediate family members. Even after the birth, when Hillary dashed to the neonatal ward to catch a glimpse of their newborn daughter, Annie, she was again refused entry.

On Tuesday Hillary Goodridge's tears of frustration dissolved into tears of joy when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that she and Julie deserved the same right to marry as heterosexual couples. Said Julie, who along with Hillary and six other couples filed the suit that led to the historic decision: "We are absolutely no different than anyone else." The court, in a 4-3 decision, agreed. It ruled that the Massachusetts Constitution "affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals" and "forbids the creation of second-class citizens." All the legal benefits of marriage--inheritance, custody of children, family health insurance, tax breaks and countless others--can no longer be denied to couples because they are of the same gender.

The state Supreme Court overturned a lower court's ruling that the legal status of marriage is grounded in a couple's ability to reproduce and gave the state's legislature 180 days to rewrite the state's marriage statutes to comply with its decision. While both Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and leaders of the Democratic-controlled legislature are opposed to gay marriage (though there has been some legislative movement toward civil unions), there appears to be little they can do to stop Hillary and Julie--and other couples--from saying their "I-dos" in the Bay State starting next May. Still, several legislators are pursuing an amendment to the state's Constitution that would ban gay marriage. But any amendment would require voter ratification, and it is unlikely that such an initiative could reach the ballot before 2006. Advocates of gay marriage insist any ban would face an uphill battle with voters in liberal Massachusetts where, they say, a majority of voters support gay marriage.

Nor is the U.S. Supreme Court likely to intervene, at least in the next six months. But it's unlikely the court will be able to avoid the issue further down the road. In 2000 Vermont passed a law giving gays the right to "civil unions"--essentially marriage in all but name. Tuesday's decision in neighboring Massachusetts goes further, making no mention of civil unions and ruling specifically that gays have full rights to a civil marriage. Compliance by the state would provoke legal battles between those who marry legally in Massachusetts but then return to one of the 38 states with "Defense of Marriage" laws that define marriage as, exclusively, a union between a man and a woman. States are expected to respect legal contracts entered into in another state, but these new laws, passed during the past decade, have been written to exempt them from that obligation regarding same-sex marriages.

Unwinding the legal tangle may take years, even decades. Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who served as lead attorney on the case, points to earlier bans on interracial marriage as precedent. Though a California court ruled such bans were unlawful back in 1948, it wasn't until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court finally agreed.

More immediate will be the political implications. While the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean, was governor of Vermont when it embraced civil unions for homosexuals, he has opposed the symbolic leap to gay marriage. This week's decision could bring the issue front and center next July, when Democrats stage their national convention in Boston's Fleet Center, just a long, three-point shot from the Massachusetts Supreme Court. They may face an awkward political decision of whether to embrace the newlyweds like Hillary and Julie, or to leave them, once again, barred at the door.