A ban on marriage between same-sex couples works a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason. The absence of any reasonable relationship between, on the one hand, an absolute disqualification of same-sex couples who wish to enter into civil marriage and, on the other, protection of public health, safety, or general welfare, suggests that the marriage restriction is rooted in persistent prejudices against persons who are (or who are believed to be) homosexual. The Constitution cannot control such prejudices but neither can it tolerate them. Private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect. Limiting the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage to opposite-sex couples violates the basic premises of individual liberty and equality under law protected by the Massachusetts Constitution.
The applicants could not obtain marriage licenses because same-sex marriages were not recognized. The state supreme court held Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 207, the marriage licensing statute, did not permit same-sex couples to marry. Denials of the applicants' attempts to marry involved individual liberty and equality safeguards of the Massachusetts Constitution, protecting freedom from unwarranted government intrusion into protected areas of life and freedom to partake in state benefits. Under the equality and liberty guarantees, regulatory authority had to be rationally related to a permissible legislative purpose.
Do government actions that bars same-sex couples from civil marriage constitute a legitimate exercise of the State's authority to regulate conduct?
The court rejected the argument suggested by the department, and elaborated by some amici, that expanding the institution of civil marriage in Massachusetts to include same-sex couples will lead to interstate conflict. We would not presume to dictate how another State should respond to today's decision. But neither should considerations of comity prevent us from according Massachusetts residents the full measure of protection available under the Massachusetts Constitution. The genius of the Federal system is that each State's Constitution has vitality specific to its own traditions, and that, subject to the minimum requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment, each State is free to address difficult issues of individual liberty in the manner its own Constitution demands.
Furthermore, the court construes that civil marriage to mean the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others. This reformulation redresses the plaintiffs' constitutional injury and furthers the aim of marriage to promote stable, exclusive relationships. It advances the two legitimate State interests the department has identified: providing a stable setting for child rearing and conserving State resources. It leaves intact the Legislature's broad discretion to regulate marriage.