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May 19, 2014

Decade ago, first gay marriages changed cultural landscape

Like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade — the U.S. Supreme Court decisions that integrated schools and legalized abortion — the decision in Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health a decade ago shook the nation and set it on a course of fundamental social and cultural change.

“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,” Margaret Marshall, then chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, wrote for the majority in a sweeping and unambiguous ruling that made Massachusetts the first state to allow gay couples to wed. “We conclude that it may not.”

“The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals,” Marshall wrote. “It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.”

Nearly 25,000 same-sex couples have married in Massachusetts since the ruling, according to the Department of Public Health. Those who married on May 17, 2004, marked their 10th anniversary this weekend, along with the law itself.

The impact of the Goodridge decision — named for Hillary and Julie Goodridge, two of the 14 plaintiffs in the case — has reached far beyond the Bay State, where it ignited a civil rights movement that was foundering, gave it legitimacy and momentum, and created a safer climate for judges, legislators and voters in other states to consider allowing their gay couples to wed.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia followed Massachusetts’ lead and now allow same-sex couples to marry. Most significant among them is California, where a voter-approved referendum banning same-sex marriages was the first to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling overturning the ban and, on the same day last year, also struck down most of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which blocked the federal government from recognizing the marriages. The language of the ruling suggested that the nation’s highest court is ready to rule that the right for gay couples to marry is rooted in the equal protection clauses of the federal Constitution, which prompted federal judges to strike down marriage bans in eight more states over the last six months, most recently in Idaho on Tuesday.

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