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July 26, 2012

SJC: Civil Unions Equivalent to Marriage

In an important unanimous decision issued today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled for the first time that a civil union must be treated as equivalent to marriage.

The ruling came in the case Elia-Warnken v. Elia. Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) represented Richard Elia, who obtained a license to marry Todd Warnken in October 2005. Mr. Elia did not know at the time that Mr. Warnken was in a civil union with another person, which they had entered into in Vermont in April 2003. Mr. Warnken and Mr. Elia lived together as spouses until December 2008, and Mr. Warnken filed for divorce in April 2009. Upon learning that Mr. Warnken had never dissolved his pre-existing civil union, Mr. Elia filed a motion to dismiss the divorce complaint, arguing that because of the civil union their marriage was never valid and therefore there was nothing to dissolve.

The SJC agreed. “[R]efusing to recognize a civil union would be inconsistent with the core legal and public policy concerns articulated in Goodridge ... protection and furtherance of the rights of same-sex couples.”

“It has always been the law of the Commonwealth that a person may have only one spouse at a time, and this was simply a matter of consistently applying long established principles to the legal relationships of same-sex couples,” said Senior Staff Attorney Ben Klein. “We’re pleased that the SJC decided that spouses in civil unions are bound by the same rules as spouses in a marriage when it comes to dissolving legal relationships before entering into a new legal relationship with a different person.”

“The Court made a fair decision that ensures that other people in my situation will be treated equally, because no one should have to go through what I’ve been through,” said Mr. Elia. “I am happy this case is over and I can move on with my life.”

You can read the full decision here.