Ed Balmelli, left, and Michael Horgan of Boston, one of seven gay couples who sued the state of Massachusetts, celebrate during a rally at the Old South Meeting House in Boston on Nov. 18, 2003 after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's ruling that same-sex couples are legally entitled to wed under the state constitution.
Elise Amendola/AP

10 years after legalization in Massachusetts, marriage equality expands

Updated

Ten years ago today, Massachusetts paved the road for marriage equality in becoming the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage.

In the last decade since the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared a gay marriage ban unconstitutional on Nov. 18, 2003, marriage equality has made significant gains with public opinion and within state legislatures. Now 14 other states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. Illinois is expected to join those states Wednesday with Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature to legislation approving same-sex marriage for his state.

“A decade after marriage equality arrived in Massachusetts, support for gay and lesbian Americans continues to rise to historic levels,” GLAAD’s Wilson Cruz told msnbc. “Anti-gay activists said the sky would fall, but the sun has shone; they said marriage would become weaker and that Americans would turn their backs on our nation’s founding principle of equality for all, but we’ve only moved closer.”

Indeed, a September poll this year found that 85% of Massachusetts voters saw a positive or little to no impact from gay marriages in the commonwealth. In the poll, voters in the state support legalizing gay marriage 60% to 29%. Nationally, support for marriage equality has almost doubled since 1996 when a Gallup poll found 27% of Americans thought same-sex marriage should be legal. In 2013, that figure jumped up to 53%.

“Now, as 16 states and our nation’s capital have moved toward marriage for all, we look back and relay our deep gratitude to the Massachusetts advocates who paved the way,” Cruz said.

In 2001, seven same-sex couples in Massachusetts were denied marriage licenses which prompted them to sue the state’s Department of Health in the higher court. In a 4-3 ruling for the case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court 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.”

Opponents of gay marriage – including Mitt Romney – attempted to reverse the ruling. Ten months into his term as governor, Romney sought a state constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling. 

“With more same-sex marriages, you saw more people changing their minds,” Mary Bonauto, the lead attorney in the lawsuit which struck down the ban, told the AP. ”Seeing gay people with their extended families, seeing the commitment, that’s what has turned this around.”

Now a decade later two states, New Mexico and Oregon, are expected to take up that same battle.

In Albuquerque, N.M., the state Supreme Court ruled a business violated an anti-discrimination law after refusing to photograph a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony. The business has filed an appeal to the federal court. Proponents of marriage equality in Oregon also hope to repeal a constitutional ban on gay marriage passed in 2004. 

Massachusetts’ Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office was the first to successfully challenge the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court, said in an editorial that “we have come so far” since the court’s ruling 10 years ago. 

“Massachusetts has seen, despite the consternation expressed by some at the time, that the institution of marriage has only been strengthened since we embraced equality,” the op-ed said.

According to the AP, nearly 100,000 same-sex couples have received their marriage licenses across the country since Massachusetts’ ruling. 16,000 of those marriages have taken place in Massachusetts. 

In June, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, recognizing same-sex marriages nationwide and granting Social Security, pension, tax and immigrant benefits, civil, military and veteran benefits, and employment protections.

But 52% of participants in a July Gallup poll thought lawmakers should go further by stating they would support a law that would legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

Mary Bonauto, now the civil rights project director for GLAD, wrote about the landmark ruling in an editorial for the Boston Herald

“While we are still some distance from a ruling ensuring the freedom to marry nationwide, other states now need to deal with ‘federally married’ same sex couples and examine whether they want to continue discrimination against those couples for state purposes,” Bonauto wrote. “There is so much more to come, but without the beacon of equality from Goodridge, we… would not be celebrating the end of federal marriage discrimination today.”

Gay Rights, Marriage Equality and Massachusetts

10 years after legalization in Massachusetts, marriage equality expands

Updated