The Supreme Judicial Court of the State of Massachusetts has ruled that there is a Constitutional right to gay marriage under the terms of the Massachusetts State Constitution.
The ruling means that the cultural divide over one of the most contentious issues in America will likely only deepen from here. Gay rights activists hope it will bolster their cause in other parts of the country, while conservative groups are equally determined to use it to solidify a growing backlash. “This is the preeminent wedge issue,” says independent pollster John Zogby. Now it has even greater “potential to be a wedge issue in 2004.”
In its 4-to-3 ruling, the court held 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.”
I’m rather torn on this ruling, as I believe that there is no Constitutional justification for banning gay marriage unless an amendment is passed. On the other hand, I don’t believe that this country is ready to accept the concept of gay marriage, and a court-mandated decision will tear this country apart even more so than the abortion debate would. There is clear conflict of values between traditionalist views of marriage and the need to end a clear prejudice against homosexuals in civil affairs.
Now, I know I’m going to get nailed on this by Christians – however, marriage is both a religious and a civil practice. On religious grounds, I have no disagreement with churches that want to deny homosexual marriages based on Biblical or other teachings. I don’t happen to agree, but I would not argue that the state has a right to interfere in the religious practice or beliefs of any group so long as those practice do not represent a clear and present danger to others. However, since marriage is also a civil institution, the state does not have the right to outright ban gay marriage unless there is specifically a Constitutional amendment allowing such a ban. The state is not a religious institution, nor should it be expected to rule solely based on religious law.
I have a feeling that gay-rights advocates are going to see a major backlash because of this decision. The only way in which the march towards greater civil acceptance of gays can be stopped is if it is pushed to far and the people revolt with an anti-gay rights Constitutional amendment. By pushing gay rights through the courts rather than taking the slower and surer political route it may very well lead to such a situation.
UPDATE: I’ve been looking more closely at the legal ramifications of this decision should it end up in the Supreme Court. I’m doubting that the Supreme Court would rule in favor of gay rights. The reason why is that there is a very high standard of evidence to make such a decision. The first barrier to entry is to determine whether the group involved is what is called a “suspect class” under the law. In essence, the Supreme Court has to find that the group is being deprived the essential right of being able to represent themselves in the political process. While there are many legal barriers presented to homosexuals, political participation is not one of them. Furthermore, the Supreme Court would have to argue that marriage is a fundamental right, which is a difficult argument to make. Marriage may be an important institution, but the Supreme Court would have to find a Constitutional reason to argue that marriage is a fundamental right – and I fail to see any evidence that that can be true under the Constitution. In fact, under the Tenth Amendment, it is an issue specifically reserved to the states.