At long last, in a 5-4 decision marked by soaring language and biting dissent, the US Supreme Court Friday extended the fundamental right of marriage to same-sex couples. The majority decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is an eloquent acknowledgment that our most intimate personal choices are constitutionally protected. It also rests on the central principle that the right to marriage is intrinsic to an ordered society and to the concepts of individual dignity and autonomy.
Throughout the history of the United States, most of the enduring gains in civil rights have come through the courageous actions of federal courts. Friday’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges stands among them. Noting the profound and flexible nature of the Constitution, Kennedy wrote: “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.”
While citing the “transcendent importance of marriage,” Kennedy rightly cautions against enshrining the past. Marriage is entwined in the culture, law, and society of its times, and has changed significantly since the days of “coverture,” when a married woman was treated as part of a single, male-dominated legal entity. Indeed, the history of heterosexual marriage has been transformed as women gained equal dignity and rights under the law.
It is no surprise that the roots of this revolution are very much in Massachusetts. As members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Democrats Lois Pines and Barney Frank cosponsored the Commonwealth’s first gay rights bill in 1973. The bill, Pines recalled Friday, was seen as too extreme for mainstream politics and was noteworthy for its “paucity of sponsors.” Gay rights activists continued to lobby through the 1980s, and a state antidiscrimination law was finally passed in 1989.
But it was the state’s Supreme Judicial Court that truly ignited a movement. In 2003, the SJC ruled in the groundbreaking Goodridge decision that denying the “protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution.” Wedding bells began ringing the next spring. It is fitting that Mary Bonauto, the attorney who argued Goodridge, was one of two plaintiffs’ attorneys who appeared before the US Supreme Court in April. Without Massachusetts, and landmark votes in the New England states of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, the history of the gay marriage movement might be very different. Massachusetts has a storied history of leading the nation on issues of social reform. This is a vindication of that impulse and should motivate us to continue that tradition.
It is worth noting that the LGBT community still faces discrimination in any number of states. Future battles loom involving cases where religious conservatives seek exemptions, says Michelangelo Signorile, gay author and political analyst. “We still have an enormous task before us,” Signorile says. But Friday’s court ruling brings much-needed clarity to a decades-long cultural and political debate: As Justice Kennedy put it, “Choices about marriage shape an individual’s destiny.” Finally, same-sex couples can legally make that choice in every state of the nation.