Three years ago this month, some Massachusetts citizens exercised a civil right – the right to marry the person they love regardless of that person’s gender.
On June 14, the Massachusetts state legislature is once again considering whether to place a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot. Therefore, on this third anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts, it may be useful to take stock of what has happened over the past three years since the first gay and lesbian couples were married in Massachusetts.
First, more than 8,500 gay and lesbian couples across the state have exchanged vows. Apart from the emotional significance of those vows, these couples have obtained legal recognition and increased security for themselves and their children. These legal protections include access to healthcare benefits and pensions, rights of survivorship and inheritance, and rights of hospital visitation. While wills and contracts can provide some of these benefits, they cannot come close to the comprehensive and automatic protections provided by marriage.
Second, while Vermont paved the way, Massachusetts is on the leading edge of a positive trend of eliminating discrimination against gay and lesbian families. Since Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, California, and Oregon have moved to legally recognize gay and lesbian relationships, and New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has introduced a bill legalizing gay marriage in New York. Hawaii, Maine, Washington, and the District of Columbia also provide some statewide spousal rights to same-sex couples.
Finally, it is instructive to think about what has not happened since gay marriages began in Massachusetts. Straight people are still getting married and having children. No religious group has been forced to conduct a religious marriage ceremony that it believes would contradict its religious teachings. And, as far as this writer knows, no gay marriage has broken up, or even actually threatened, a single straight marriage.
Despite the fear mongering of gay marriage opponents, nothing in the past three years has happened to justify exposing the rights of some families to a public vote. Far from being a threat to marriage, the desire of gays and lesbians for marriage equality strengthens and emphasizes the importance of this institution. Extending the legal benefits of marriage to more families increases the numbers of people who benefit from the social safety net marriage provides. Massachusetts legislators have an obligation to protect all Massachusetts families, and they should vote to keep the Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage off the ballot.Mary Kilpatrick is an assistant professor of law and a reference librarian at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. She can be contacted at Kilpatrick@mslaw.edu