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It's Been 10 Years Since Massachusetts Legalized Gay Marriage

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

On November 18, 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts propelled the state into making history: Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

This week marks the ten-year anniversary of the court's historic decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health. What a difference a day decade makes.

Massachusetts Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

In the Goodridge opinion, penned by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, the court made a landmark constitutional ruling when it declared 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."

The ruling broke a historic barrier and ushered in the right for same-sex couples in the state to share in the freedom to marry. But the path to equality since Goodridge has certainly been a long, arduous one.

Fifth Anniversary: Still Going Against the Grain

Even five years after the ruling, Massachusetts was remarkably alone. Only three states (with New Hampshire soon to follow) had legalized same-sex marriage, reports Boston Magazine. On the contrary, opposition to same-sex marriage gained momentum. Eleven states had laws banning gay marriage. Twenty-nine had constitutional amendments.

A centerpiece of the backlash against Massachusetts' decision was President George Bush's 2004 call for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. President Bush was concerned that the Defense of Marriage Act was vulnerable to attack under the Full Faith and Credit clause.

Nearly ten years later, it appears President Bush's fears were justified -- but for the wrong reasons.

Tenth Anniversary: The Tide Turns and Massachusetts Makes History Again

The same-sex marriage movement found the wind in its sails when the target shifted to DOMA and equal protection. In March 2009, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) filed Gill vs. Office of Personnel Management, challenging DOMA on equal protection grounds. Their lawsuit was buttressed by a parallel DOMA challenge filed by Attorney General Coakley on behalf of the Commonwealth.

In tandem, the two cases proceeded to become the first-ever successful challenges to DOMA.

Around this time, President Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage -- during a reelection campaign, no less. In May 2012, the First Circuit issued the first appellate ruling striking down DOMA, citing equal protection grounds and, in turn, catapulting the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This of course culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court's recent United States v. Windsor ruling. The opinion boldly stated that DOMA could not stand when it "instruct[ed] all federal officials, and ... all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others."

A Long Time Coming

The Goodridge anniversary is punctuated by a positive trend statistic: This week, Illinois became the 16th state to legalize same-sex marriage.

But as Chief Justice Marshall pointed out to the Harvard Gazette, "The first claims for a state to recognize same-sex marriage were brought some 40 years ago." From that perspective, she explains, gaining meaningful traction toward embracing same-sex marriage has been a half-century in the making.

So on this tenth year since the Goodridge ruling, let us remember Massachusetts, the First Circuit, and where it all began.

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