WASHINGTON - Emphasizing that a ban on gay marriages causes "deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community," the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that the state must extend to gay and lesbian couples the same rights to marriage that it grants to heterosexuals.
In a decision that might affect the status of gays and lesbians across the nation, the Massachusetts court flatly rejected the state's rationales for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. It said the marriage restriction was "rooted in persistent prejudices" against homosexuals and violated basic premises of liberty and equality under the state constitution.
Although grounded in state law, the decision will reach far beyond Massachusetts' borders.
If gay couples get the benefits of marriage there, they are certain to ask other states and the federal government to recognize their unions; officials who refuse likely will face court challenges.
The ruling also is likely to encourage gays and lesbians seeking to marry in other states to challenge their own state laws barring the practice.
The ruling, on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning state criminal laws against homosexual sex, reflects a growing legal acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships. But politically, the question remains deeply divisive, and conservative groups have vowed to make gay marriage an issue in the 2004 elections.
The Massachusetts justices made clear they recognized the scope and potential implications of their ruling. Because the decision was based on state law, Massachusetts officials cannot appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We are mindful that our decision marks a change in the history of our marriage law," Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall wrote for the court's 4-3 majority, acknowledging the deep-seated "religious, moral and ethical convictions" that Americans on both sides of the issue hold.
Reaction to the decision was swift and passionate. Supporters hailed it as a "momentous legal and cultural milestone."
Opponents said it was a "wake-up call" for the American public and its elected officials and called for a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to heterosexual couples.
President Bush said the decision violates the "important principle" that "marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman." He said he would work with congressional leaders and others "to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage."
In Congress, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said the decision "raises serious questions regarding the future of both the family and the traditional definition of marriage throughout America" and said lawmakers immediately should consider a constitutional amendment "to protect and safeguard marriage."
But Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut said that amendment would be "unnecessary and divisive," although he opposes gay marriage.
Although the ruling is the most sweeping of its kind by a state supreme court, it follows court decisions in other states holding marriage restrictions unconstitutional.
In 1999, Vermont's highest court allowed civil unions between gays. Courts in Hawaii and Alaska have ruled in favor of gay marriage, but those states then prohibited it by amending their constitutions.
In its decision, the Massachusetts court did not immediately grant marriage benefits to the seven gay and lesbian couples who had challenged the state law. Instead, the court gave the state legislature 180 days to eliminate the ban and devise a way to extend the benefits of marriage to gays and lesbians.
Some state officials, however, said they would seek to amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and woman. Others said they would explore whether they could provide civil unions for gay and lesbian couples that are distinct from heterosexual marriage, as long as the couples still received the same benefits as married couples.
But supporters of the ruling said they expected the state to begin handing out marriage licenses to gays and lesbians within six months. In a news conference after the decision, several of those couples spoke with emotion about what the ruling would mean in their lives.
"We are a couple that is worthy of the protection of marriage," said Julie Goodridge, 43, who has a 5-year-old daughter with partner Hillary Goodridge. "After 16 1/2 years, Hillary and I are finally going to be able to get married and protect our family."
The court noted that the benefits of marriage are "enormous, touching nearly every aspect of life and death," including property rights, tax benefits and medical coverage. And a couple's children "reap a measure of family stability and economic security" based on their parents' marital status, it said.