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Goodridge v. Department of Public Health Background Information

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) represented the plaintiffs in Goodridge et al v. Department of Public Health, seeking the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in Massachusetts. On November 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rules that same-sex couples have the right to marry in Massachusetts under the state Constitution.

What was the lawsuit about?

The plaintiffs, seven lesbian and gay couples from across Massachusetts, were denied marriage licenses at their local city or town halls. They asked the court for a declaration that they have a right to marry under Massachusetts law. The defendant is the Department of Public Health (DPH) because DPH is charged under Massachusetts law with enforcing state laws that pertain to marriage.

Who are the plaintiffs?

The couples have been in committed relationships from seven to 32 years, and seek civil marriage and the protections and security it uniquely provides. They live in Boston, Newton, Whitinsville, Orleans and Northampton. Four of the seven couples are raising children.

Why was this suit filed at this time, in Massachusetts?

GLAD filed this suit in order to protect these couples, and in some cases, their children, with the legal framework of protections and obligations offered only by civil marriage. Massachusetts has a strong track record of civil rights leadership on many issues. Residents of Massachusetts know that gay and lesbian families are part of the fabric of the Commonwealth and the majority believes in fairness and equality for lgbt people. The state Constitution contains strong equality guarantees and the Court has consistently treated the Constitution as offering protections to minorities. The Legislature has also passed laws on issues of concern to lgbt people, including job protection, hate crimes, and student rights.

What did GLAD argue to the court?

Our state Constitution guarantees that all people shall be treated equally and enjoy fundamental liberties. GLAD argued that excluding same-sex couples and their families from civil marriage interferes with those basic promises. Without the freedom to marry under Massachusetts state law, these couples and their children are flat-out denied the enormous protections and responsibilities marriage provides.

What did the Court decide in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health?

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage in unconstitutional under the equality and liberty provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution. (“[W]e conclude that the marriage ban does not meet the rational basis test for either due process or equal protection.”) To remedy this constitutional violation, the Court stated “We construe civil marriage to mean the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others. This reformulation redresses the plaintiffs' constitutional injury and further the aim of marriage to promote stable, exclusive relationships.” It also added, “[E]xtending civil marriage to same-sex couples reinforces the importance of marriage to individuals and communities. That same-sex couples are willing to embrace marriage's solemn obligations of exclusivity, mutual support, and commitment to one another is a testament to the enduring place of marriage in our laws and in the human spirit.”

Why marriage? Don't most same-sex couples and parents already take the necessary steps to protect themselves?

While some couples take the handful of steps available to them, there are still hundreds of protections that cannot be secured without access to civil marriage. These include being treated as an economic unit in the tax laws, the ability to purchase joint policies of insurance, protection through worker's compensation and wrongful death actions, the ability to pass on retirement benefits, and economic protections for a surviving spouse. In addition, there are significant costs involved in securing even the few protections available to gay and lesbian families, and many simply can't afford them. Finally, gay and lesbian families face the added burden and worry of ensuring that these documents are with them at all times and will be honored, often during times of emergency and stress. The few protections that can be contracted are not enough for non-gay people, and they are not enough for gay and lesbian couples and their families either. There is no substitute for civil marriage.

What about the view in some religions that marriage does not include same-sex couples?

This case has nothing to do with religious practices or doctrines. No matter what, every religion can set its own rules about who may marry within their faith tradition. The lawsuit only sought the right to a state-authorized, civil marriage. From the state's perspective, marriage happens with or without a religious service.

What has been the public reaction to this lawsuit, on the state and federal levels?

This case has invigorated an ongoing national conversation about whether or not it is fair to deny gay and lesbian couples access to civil marriage licenses. Many people are thinking about this issue for the first time and it is a lot for many folks to work through. We believe that as fair-minded people grapple with it, they will recognize the justice in our claim. Some people who oppose any rights for gay and lesbian families have seized on the case and other favorable legal developments to propose amendments to both the Massachusetts Constitution and the U.S. Constitution to exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage and other piecemeal protections. In Massachusetts, the proposed amendment requires majority votes in joint sessions of the Legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions before going to a popular vote at the ballot in 2006. Neither the state Constitution, nor the federal Constitution, has ever been amended to restrict rights, only to expand rights. Legislators take such matters extremely seriously. As legislators and the public learn more about the issues at stake for same-sex couples and their families, we have seen them come down on the side of fairness. A considerable proportion of the MA Legislature opposes the proposed Constitutional amendment, with more and more taking this position every day. A recent poll conducted by the national firm Decision Research showed 59% of Massachusetts residents support equal civil marriage for same-sex couples. After the ruling, polls in the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe also showed a majority of voters supportive of the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health and opposed to legislative efforts to interfere with the court's mandate of equality. And newspapers across the Commonwealth, including the Boston Globe, the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, the Springfield Republican, the New Bedford Standard-Times, and the Cape Codder, have editorialized in favor of civil marriage for same-sex couples, reflecting a growing popular support for marriage equality.