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Same sex marriage

Same Sex Marriages

Cambridge City Hall

795 Massachusetts Avenue

On May 17, 2004 Cambridge City Hall opened at 12:01 AM and began issuing marriage licenses—the culmination of one of the most important and controversial civil rights issues in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Marcia Hams and Susan Shepherd were the first same-sex couple to apply for and receive a marriage license, and later exchanged vows in the first legalized same-sex marriage in the United States.

In her opinion, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote that the “Massachusetts constitution affirms the dignity of all individuals” and “forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” With this statement, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in a 4 to 3 decision on November 18, 2003 that it is unconstitutional under the Massachusetts constitution to allow only heterosexual couples to marry. In the court's decision regarding Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the court ruled “the right to marry means little if it does not include the right to marry the person of one's choice.”

This ruling made Massachusetts the first state in the United States to legalize same-sex marriage and the sixth jurisdiction in the world (behind Belgium; British Columbia, Canada; the Netherlands; Ontario, Canada; and Quebec, Canada) to legalize same-sex marriage. It immediately created a controversy in response to the legality and morality of this decision.

After the Goodridge decision, however, it was unclear whether the Massachusetts decision deemed civil unions as a far enough step towards marriage equality. Any ambiguity was cleared up on January 4, 2004 when a majority of the justices explained that the their ruling meant that only marriage could equal equality. Civil unions would be an “unconstitutional, inferior, and discriminatory status for same-sex couples. Separate is seldom, if ever, equal,” the court explained. The original November ruling had allowed for a stayed judgment for 180 days, providing for the Massachusetts Legislature to take any action that they deemed necessary. After those 180 days had passed, Governor Mitt Romney ordered town clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses on May 17, 2004. At midnight, with the typical three-day waiting period voided for the occasion, same-sex couples entered Cambridge City Hall. About a half-hour later, every two or three minutes, cheers erupted as each couple emerged from the building, marched down an impromptu aisle between a cheering crowd of 5,000 Cantabrigians, and same-sex marriage became a reality. Residents threw roses, rice, and even handed out cupcakes to the happy couples.

While Cambridge has a reputation for progressive politics, one has to remember the context in which the Cambridge City Council and the City Clerk made the decision to open City Hall at one minute past midnight and issue the first same sex marriage license in America. At this time, U.S. President George W. Bush had just called on Congress “to pass, and to send to the states for ratification, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and a woman as husband and wife.” There was opposition to the idea of “non-traditional” unions from both sides of the aisle, even in Massachusetts. In this climate of fear, Cambridge, the only city in America that has had three openly-gay mayors, took the lead and claimed this issue. In the years that have followed this issue has continued to divide America. While seven other states and the District of Columbia have legalized same sex marriage, over 30 have passed laws or constitutional amendments to ban same sex marriage.

Cambridge saw 227 couples apply for marriage licenses that first night. Another 10,000 same-sex couples were married throughout Massachusetts in the first four years following Marcia and Susan's wedding. In the eight years since Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, four other states and Washington D.C. have legalized same-sex unions. Brian Lees, one of the original sponsors of the amendment to ban same-sex marriage has since said, “Gay marriage has begun, and life has not changed for the citizens of the commonwealth, with the exception of those who can now marry.” And Cambridge continues to be happy to marry any couple who applies for a license at city hall.