November 19, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
10 years later, Goodridge decision still seen as milestone
Mary Bonauto, gay news, Washington Blade

Mary Bonauto litigated the case that brought marriage equality to Massachusetts 10 years ago. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Ten years have passed since marriage equality came to the first state in the nation following a historic decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, helping to usher in swift change in attitudes and law around gay and lesbian couples.

On Nov. 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down a 4-3 ruling in the case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, bringing marriage equality to the Bay State.

“The question before us is whether, consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth may deny the protections, benefits, and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry,” the decision states. “We conclude that it may not. The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals.”

Despite efforts from then-Gov. Mitt Romney to limit the ruling to civil unions and enact a constitutional amendment to rescind the decision, supporters of the ruling won the day and marriage equality has remained the law of the land in Massachusetts.

Mary Bonauto, who litigated the Goodridge case on behalf of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and now serves as civil rights director there, said on the 10th anniversary of the decision the ruling “broke a historic barrier that we have never been able to overcome.”

“And it did so in the shared values of our constitution that we all believe in equality and we don’t have second-class citizens in this nation under the law,” Bonauto said.

The magnitude of the decision was bolstered, Bonauto said, six months later by the same-sex couples who went to the altar to marry.

“Now you had principle and you had reality working together, and all this freedom and equality from the court, and the you saw the joy in couples who finally were able to marry,” Bonauto said. “I think actually having couples marry was profound. It had to happen somewhere, somebody had to be first.”

Evan Wolfson, an early proponent of marriage equality and current president of Freedom to Marry, said having same-sex marriage legal someplace in the country was transformational for the movement.

“The breakthrough we were always working for in those early years was to make it real somewhere because we knew that once people had a chance to see with their own eyes families helped, and no one hurt, the opposition and resistance and fears would begin to subside, and we could build on that win to the rest of the wins still needed,” Wolfson said.

But the victory in Massachusetts, followed by then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to distribute marriage licenses to gay couples, was met by a significant roadblock in the 2004 election when 11 states adopted constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. President George W. Bush won re-election after making support for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage a prominent part of his campaign.

Pointing to political analysis debunking the notion that the marriage issue drove voters to the polls to re-elect Bush, Bonauto expressed skepticism that the ruling led to the win for Republicans in the 2004 election.

“The way this all got started, I think, people were putting two-and-two together about moral values, and the 22 percent of voters had stated that their most important consideration was ‘moral values,’ and the 11 amendments,” Bonauto said. “In the exit polling and so on about what this moral values means, for a great many people it meant the Iraq war. So it wasn’t even clear that the moral values voters were Bush voters.”

Bonauto said when she filed the case in 2001, 36 states already had statutory bans on same-sex marriage in response to advancing efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Hawaii in the 1990s.

“From my perspective, it wasn’t really so much a backlash as a continued lashing,” Bonauto said. “People who had already taken steps to be very explicit about marriage bans, the only place they could go, continue to hone their political credentials, was to be even more draconian, and so that’s what happened by and large.”

Referencing a speech he delivered prior to Election Day of that year, Wolfson said the win in Massachusetts still trumped the losses at the ballot box in 2004 because it was still progress from the status quo.

“Even in 2004, I was on record before the election as saying that any year in which we endured some anti-gay attacks, but won marriage was a winning year because wins trump losses,” Wolfson said. “We would use the power of the win to overcome the temporary barriers erected in our losses, and that’s precisely what we are doing.”

It wasn’t until 2008 when other states would follow suit after courts in Connecticut and California ruled in favor of marriage equality, although the victory in California was (until recently) abrogated several months later by the passage of Proposition 8.

Now 16 states and D.C. are poised to have marriage equality on the books in the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of these unions.

The ruling against DOMA at the Supreme Court was coupled by a decision from justices that restored marriage equality to California. In the months that followed, the New Jersey Supreme Court has instituted marriage equality in the Garden State and state legislatures in Illinois and Hawaii have extended marriage to gay couples. At any time, the New Mexico Supreme Court could hand down a ruling in favor of marriage equality as a result of pending litigation.

M.V. Lee Badgett, research director at the Williams Institute, estimated about 100,000 gay couples have married since the Goodridge decision 10 years ago, but the effect of having marriage equality in Massachusetts and other places goes far beyond numbers.

“It will take a while for researchers to analyze and publish more detailed findings on the effects of the ability to marry and of actual marriage,” Badgett said. “One early study showed that same-sex couples in Massachusetts feel more social inclusion, and one sample of gay men showed lower health care costs and health care utilization. In California we’ve seen that psychological health is better for same-sex couples who marry or had domestic partnerships.”

Wolfson said the growth of marriage equality in the country is noteworthy in many respects, including in terms of percentages.

“As we celebrate the end of this big year, we now have 38 percent of the American people living in a freedom to marry state, up from zero a decade ago,” Wolfson said. “Gay people can share in the freedom to marry in 18 countries, in five continents, up from zero virtually a decade ago. That, by any standard, is enormous progress and real momentum, but we have to finish the job.”

Reflecting back on the decision 10 years ago, Bonauto said she hoped at the time this much change would happen a decade later, but confessed “there were times that I certainly wasn’t sure.”

“I had always hoped that the arc for us would be what it was in some ways for interracial marriage, where courts rebuff and rebuff and rebuff, and then in 1948 the California Supreme Court struck down the interracial marriage ban,” Bonauto said. “More states repealed those after the California ruling, so that 19 years later when the Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia, Virginia was only one of 16 states that had such bans.”

During a news conference held on the same day as the 10th anniversary of the Goodridge decision, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also noted progress made in the past decade in response to a more general question on LGBT rights.

“I think that anybody who looks at LGBT rights and the road travelled in this country just in the past decade would rightly be pleased by the significant progress that’s been made, even as we acknowledge that more work needs to be done, more progress need to be done,” Carney said.

Carney later told the Blade via email he wasn’t making a direct reference to the Goodridge decision, but his comments were meant “just as a broad reference to the progress made over the last decade.”

And hopes continue for a brighter future as advocates anticipate one of the pending federal lawsuits in 20 states across the country will make its way to the Supreme Court, delivering a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide in less than 10 years. Following the Supreme Court rulings in June, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said marriage equality will reach the entire nation within five years.

Bonauto said she hopes the Supreme Court will settle the marriage issue once and for all, but isn’t completely sure which way the justices would rule and emphasized hard work is necessary for a favorable outcome.

“I think we have to work with the same intensity that we have up to this point and hopefully the Supreme Court will settle the issue, and then if for some reason it does not, which I think would be extremely unfortunate, I just think we have to continue doing what we’ve been doing state by state,” she said.

Freedom to Marry has prepared a “Roadmap to Victory” in anticipation of a Supreme Court decision that entails winning more states and building support for same-sex marriage in nationwide polls. Eyes will be on Oregon in 2014 to see whether it will reverse a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage at the ballot.

Wolfson said he “absolutely” believes that supporters of same-sex marriage will be able to finish the job.

“The good news for us is the same winning strategy that brought us to this point of momentum is the strategy that is going to bring it all home,” Wolfson said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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