BOSTON — Massachusetts' highest court Tuesday issued the broadest ruling to date on gay marriage, saying that the state's constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to wed.
"We declare that barring an individual from the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution," Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote.
The 4-3 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court stopped short of issuing marriage licenses to seven homosexual couples who brought suit after unsuccessfully seeking to marry. Rather, the court gave the Legislature 180 days to come up with a plan to allow individuals of the same sex to wed in Massachusetts.
In its sweeping 90-page decision, the court exceeded previous rulings by reformulating the conventional definition of civil marriage "to mean the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others."
Further, the court ruled: "Whether and whom to marry, how to express sexual intimacy, and whether and how to establish a family -- these are among the most basic of every individual's liberty and due process rights. And central to personal freedom and security is the assurance that the laws will apply equally to persons in similar situations.
"Barred access to the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage, a person who enters into an intimate, exclusive union with another of the same sex is arbitrarily deprived of membership in one of our community's most rewarding and cherished institutions," the court declared.
While supporters celebrated the decision in Goodridge vs. Massachusetts Board of Health in rallies nationwide, opponents condemned the court's action.
From London, President Bush denounced the Massachusetts court for violating the principle that "marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman." And Sean Patrick O'Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, criticized the panel for rejecting "the very definition of marriage held by peoples for thousands of years."
On Beacon Hill -- where a small group of lawmakers has been working for months to craft a civil-union bill that would create marriage-like rights for gay and lesbian couples -- some other prominent state legislators said Tuesday that they would pursue a constitutional amendment to limit the definition of marriage to the union between a man and a woman.
Republican Gov. Mitt Romney said he would veto any measure that extends marriage to homosexual couples. Romney said he agreed with "3,000 years of recorded history," not with his state's highest court.
"Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman," the governor said. "I will support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that makes that expressly clear."
But two of the plaintiffs in the suit were overjoyed Tuesday.
Gloria Bailey and Linda Davies have been a couple for 32 years. "Without a doubt, this is the happiest day of our lives," said Bailey, fighting back tears and fingering a diamond engagement ring passed down through Davies' family. "The most important thing is that whatever lies ahead, we now know we can be at each other's sides."
The Supreme Judicial Court spent close to eight months deliberating before issuing its ruling, which gives same-sex couples in Massachusetts the broadest rights in the nation. The decision was framed around the court's conclusion that excluding gays and lesbians from "the unique institution of civil marriage" violates the state's constitution.
Without the right to marry, the court wrote, "one is excluded from the full range of human experience" and denied "enormous private and social advantages."
Although there is no specific statute in Massachusetts precluding same-sex couples from marrying, common-law tradition has dictated that only heterosexuals could marry. The court's decision cannot be appealed to a federal court because it is based on the state constitution. The Supreme Judicial Court gave the Legislature the 180-day timetable to carry out its ruling.
The panel was adamant that creating a separate, marriage-like institution for same-sex couples would not satisfy the state's constitution.
That solution was adopted in 2000 by Vermont, the first state to legalize same-sex partnerships in the form of civil unions. The "parallel-track" institution of civil union was devised by legislators there after Vermont's highest court ordered them to extend the constitutional benefits and protections of marriage to gays and lesbians.
Although the rights encompassed in civil union do not extend beyond Vermont, thousands of same-sex couples have flocked to the state to formalize their partnerships.
Hawaii and Alaska courts also have ruled gay marriage could not be banned. Both states subsequently amended their constitutions to reserve marriage for heterosexual couples.