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Coakley brief backs gay marriage

A decade after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage, its chief law enforcement officer called on the US ­Supreme Court to strike down a California ban on same-sex marriage, declaring that it relegates gays and lesbians to “second-class status.”

In a brief joined by a dozen states, Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general, wrote that the California ban violates equal protection rights in “clear conflict with our Constitution.”

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“Denying gays and lesbians the opportunity to wed the partner of their choosing does not advance any legitimate governmental ­interest,” Coakley wrote in an ­amicus curiae, or friend-of-the-court brief, filed with the Supreme Court Thursday.

Officials in 13 other states — including New York, Illinois, and Maryland — joined the brief, some of which have not legalized gay marriage. The Obama administration also planned to file a brief in opposition to the California law, The New York Times reported Thursday.

The Massachusetts brief pointed out that a number of states have legalized same-sex marriage over the past decade and argued that the California ban, known as Proposition 8, targeted a specific group of people for discrimination.

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“Against that history of greater inclusion and equality, Proposition 8 singles out same-sex couples and excludes them from the opportunity to marry the person of their choice,” the brief states.

In late March, the Supreme Court is slated to hear arguments about the constitutionality of the California ban and will also review a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman.

In the friend-of-the-court brief filed Thursday, Coakley wrote that states shared an ­interest in “ensuring that marriage is strengthened” and that there was no evidence to support claims that allowing same-sex couples to wed harms the institution as a whole.

“Since the founding, states have sanctioned marriages to support families, strengthen communities, and facilitate governance,” the brief argues. “Because same-sex couples avail themselves of the benefits and abide by the obligations of marriage in precisely the same manner as different-sex couples, the states’ interests in marriage are furthered by allow­ing same-sex couples to marry.”

Preventing same-sex couples from marrying deprives their children of the benefits of being raised “in a secure, protected family unit with two married parents,” the brief states.

“Excluding same-sex couples from marriage does not further the well-being of any children,” the brief asserts. “In fact, it does just the opposite.”

California voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008 after the state’s Supreme Court granted same-sex couples the right to marry. Last February, a federal appeals court declared the measure unconstitutional, spurring supporters of the law to take the Supreme Court review.

On Wednesday, the attorney general in California urged the high court to rule against the ban, saying its sole effect was to “strip loving relationships of validation and dignity under law.”

On Friday, Coakley’s office along with the attorney general of New York, will submit a separate brief urging the high court to strike down the federal law.

“This discriminatory and unconstitutional law harms thousands of families in Massachusetts and takes away our state’s right to extend marriage equality to all couples,” Coakley said in a statement. “We urge the Supreme Court to take the important final step toward ensur­ing equality for all.”

In 2009, Massachusetts ­became the first state to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act, saying Congress intruded into a matter that should be left to the states. The following year, a federal district court judge in Boston struck down the law as unconstitutional, a ruling that was upheld on ­appeal last year.

The brief argued that allowing same-sex couples to marry does not impede states from regulating marriage in other ways. States may continue to limit the number of spouses a person can have at any given time, for example, and prohibit marriages between relatives.

“Quite simply, Proposition 8 prevents gays and lesbians from fully realizing what this court has described as ‘one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men,’ ” the brief concluded, citing the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision striking down bans on inter­racial marriage.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.
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