Last edited: November 22, 2003

Lawrence Credited in Massachusetts Ruling

Datalounge, November 19, 2003

WASHINGTON—When the Supreme Court ruled last June that gay people were entitled to freedom, dignity and “respect for their private lives,” it seemed to go out of its way in stressing this did not entitle them to full equality in marriage. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in his majority opinion and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in a concurring opinion, said that decriminalizing gay sexual behavior did not obligate the court to confer legal legitimacy to gay relationships. This despite a blistering and uncivil dissenting opinion from Antonin Scalia that said it did precisely that.

The Texas case “does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter,” said Kennedy. O’Connor wrote: “Unlike the moral disapproval of same-sex relations—the asserted state interest in this case—other reasons exist to promote the institution of marriage beyond mere moral disapproval of an excluded group.”

But it cannot be disputed that the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas anchored gay civil rights issues in the broadest constitutional context, equating gay civil rights with the civil rights struggles of the recent past. The majority of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court wrote that same-sex couples have a state constitutional right to the “protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage.” It is no coincidence that Chief Justice Margaret Marshall’s majority opinion included this quotation from the Lawrence decision: “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.”

“You’d have to be tone deaf not to get the message from Lawrence that anything that invites people to give same-sex couples less than full respect is constitutionally suspect,” Professor Laurence H. Tribe of Harvard Law School told the New York Times.

Tribe said that had the Texas case been decided differently, “the odds that this cautious, basically conservative state court would have decided the case this way would have been considerably less.”

Professor Suzanne Goldberg of Rutgers University Law School said the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of state sodomy laws removed the criminal stain that colored the gay and lesbian argument. With the stigma of sodomy laws removed, state arguments in favor of inequality had very little left to stand on.

The Massachusetts court considered and rejected various arguments made against marriage equality before delivering this formulation. “It is the exclusive and permanent commitment of the marriage partners to one another, not the begetting of children, that is the sine qua non of civil marriage,” Chief Justice Marshall said.

The plaintiffs in this case, she noted, “seek only to be married, not to undermine the institution of civil marriage. . . The marriage ban works a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason.”

The Lawrence decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, said Goldberg, “gave state courts not only cover but strength to respond to unequal treatment of lesbians and gay men.” The Goodridge decision in Massachusetts “is absolutely consistent with and responsive to Lawrence” she said. “It’s impossible to overestimate how profoundly Lawrence changed the landscape for gay men and lesbians.”

[Home] [News] [Lawrence v. Texas]