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Massachusetts gay marriage ruling breaks pace with US mainstream

November 19, 2003

WASHINGTON — A Massachusetts high court ruling Tuesday in favor of gay marriage is a big step ahead of US politicians, and indeed most of the 50 US states, that might push it into the spotlight of the 2004 presidential race.

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts issued a landmark ruling arguing that barring gay couples from the benefits of civil marriage "violates the Massachusetts Constitution." The US debate over whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry or form civil unions, and enjoy the legal benefits of married people, has been a tangled and slow-moving one, fraught with thorny legal, religious, social and "labelling" questions.

The Massachusetts' court move was a bold one in that, to date, no US state has approved something called marriage between persons of the same sex.

While many US homosexuals have lobbied to secure legal rights they generally do not have as half of a couple -- such as inheriting a home, making health care decisions and even tax benefits – many US conservatives argue that marriage can only be a union between a man and a woman.

Only one US state, Vermont, has legalized civil unions between homosexuals. The 2000 legislation was signed by then-governor Howard Dean, now a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination and would-be rival of President George W. Bush.

Vermont with its law avoided the "labelling" thicket – granting gays who form a civil union many of the legal rights of married couples without actually calling the union a marriage.

And Dean's role in its passage, plus the Massachusetts ruling, could help thrust the civil union/gay marriage issue further to the forefront in the 2004 campaign for the White House.

Under Vermont law, to avoid relatives forming a union just to secure legal benefits, civil union status is available only to two persons of the same sex and not related to one another. Parties to civil union must be at least 18 and may not already be party to another civil union or marriage.

Yet a federal US Defense of Marriage Act in effect since 1996 has said no state is required to recognize the law of another US state with respect to a same-sex "marriage." It also defines the words "marriage" and "spouse" for purposes of federal law.

Some gay rights advocates however specifically want to gain their rights through something called "marriage." They maintain that something named differently might be valued differently or end up limiting their couples-related legal rights.

The state of New Jersey is considering a suit filed by the group Lambda Legal in June 2002 "on behalf of seven lesbian and gay couples seeking full marriage rights," the group's website says.

"Beyond legal rights and responsibilities, marriage is an enormous part of day-to-day life and is the most common way that couples prove their enduring commitment to each other," the rights group argues.

Among other prominent court battles over the issue, Hawaiian couples lost an eight-year court battle that ended in December 1999 with a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling. It unanimously upheld the right of the legislature to restrict the eligibility of couples seeking to marry.

In July, the US Supreme Court Thursday struck down a Texas state law banning private consensual sex between same sex adults. Most US states had anti-sodomy laws until the 1960s. –Sapa-AFP

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