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July 26, 2012 9:55 AM   Subscribe

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has ruled for the first time that a civil union must be treated as equivalent to marriage. The full decision is here.
posted by roomthreeseventeen (26 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I need some explanation. Is this about gay marriage? I somehow thought Massachusetts already had full legal marriage for gay couples.

Is the point that civil unions (presumably concluded before marriage was available) must be treated the same as marriages? That seems right.

But this feels like technical cleanup rather than a civil rights breakthrough. The big breakthrough already happened.
posted by grobstein at 10:03 AM on July 26, 2012


It's about treating civil unions that take place in other states as legally identical to marriage. (The one in question took place in Vermont in 2005.)
posted by Plutor at 10:08 AM on July 26, 2012 [9 favorites]


It's about acknowledging the Vermont civil unions as equivalent in marriage in MA. Since MA does not have civil unions, are the pre-marriage civil unions in Vermont the same as marriage in MA?

The case presented involves a defendant who entered into a civil union in VT with one party and later married a different person in MA without the civil union in VT being dissolved. The court determined this to be polygamy and the MA marriage is void since the defendant has, for all intents and purposes, a spouse already.

It's about the laws of comity and how certain things are or are not recognized across state lines. I'm not a lawyer, but I think this sets a good precedent.
posted by zizzle at 10:09 AM on July 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


Wow, they blew right through gay marriage and into gay bigamy!

But okay, I understand the basics of the case involved, but what indeed does this imply in a broader sense? Does this basically mean that a civil union must include all the rights and responsibilities that go with marriage? (I gather this was not previously the case?)

In some sense, doesn't this actually hurt the argument for gay marriage by that name by insisting that civil unions are functionally the same thing?
posted by Naberius at 10:09 AM on July 26, 2012


Naberius, no. It's a state issue in MA. MA does not have civil unions, ergo, how does MA handle what another state termed a civil union? Is it, in MA, then, a marriage?

The answer is that in MA, yes, it is.
posted by zizzle at 10:11 AM on July 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Many states and municipalities have civil unions and marriages. Civil unions aren't just for queer folk who can't marry and make up a minority of people who do, acording to research I pulled when writing domestic partnership legislation for a large city in New York.

The laws surrounding this are really freakin weird. Laws surrounding marriage exist in federal, state, county, and municipal government and none neccicerily effect the other. MA, for example has full marriage equality at the state level and below, but still has no federal recognition.

What it seems like to me, this ruling just say that all of those things which act like marriage should be treated like marriage.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:13 AM on July 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


munchingzombie, I have a NY domestic partnership. It is extremely weird.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:14 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


MA has gay marriage.

Here, the court is requiring MA to treat non-MA civil unions as MA marriages. Or at least those civil unions that are explicitly "the same thing as marriage but called something else," like the VT one in question was.

It seems like not a big deal to me -- the court is saying that if a civil union elsewhere looks enough like a marriage here, we're going to count it as a marriage. Presumably there could be other states where civil unions were sufficiently dissimilar from marriage that MA would not count them as marriages.

Where this would get more interesting might be a case of a heterosexual couple in VT who chose to get civil-unioned instead of married (assuming straights can get civil unions in VT instead of marriages). In that case, should the court count the union as a marriage even though the couple clearly did not intend to be married?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:16 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I am not quite sure of the significance of this. If you have all the rights, obligations and benefits of marriage, even if it's called something else, then entering into a new marriage would seem to fall within the intent of the bigamy statute. Seems like an easy call. It would be interesting to see what the result would have been if the couple had lived together as spouses in a state that bans civil unions and domestic partnerships.
posted by moammargaret at 10:20 AM on July 26, 2012


Betting pool on first right-wing commentator to claim this means homosexuals don't need to be allowed to marry, because civil union is the same thing?
posted by benito.strauss at 10:34 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I am not quite sure of the significance of this.

The fact that Mr. Elia did not know that his marriage to Mr. Warnken was not valid seems to be more a relief to him, but I can easily imagine a situation where it would be a devastating circumstance. Do partners in invalidated marriages have any legal protections for division of property, custody, or support?
posted by gladly at 10:40 AM on July 26, 2012


my understanding is that some more radical LGBT people strongly dislike the cultural connotations/social history of the institution of marriage and would prefer the language civil union so long as the same legal status/ rights are guaranteed.

Also, I dunno about the US , but I think in France, their civil union equivalent, the Civil Solidarity Pact, is not just open to romantic/sexual couples of any orientation. You could get a CSP with its tax and legal benefits with your best friend if you've just been living in the same household for a long time and are supporting each other but without the implication that you're a couple .
posted by Bwithh at 10:56 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


MA has gay marriage.

We do not have "gay marriage." We have "marriage." Other states have "limited, exclusionary marriage." If you like, please use the term "same-sex marriage," instead.

The state never asks any questions of those who marry with regard to their sexuality, their intentions of engaging in intercourse, etc.
posted by explosion at 11:05 AM on July 26, 2012 [17 favorites]


My opposite-sex husband and I would have preferred a civil union. Still would. Best we could do was a wedding presided over by a justice of the peace.

Vermont's civil unions were only for same-sex couples, and they were specifically created as a "separate but equal" parallel to marriage. There was a very clear-cut process for their dissolution, which didn't include "pretending it didn't happen and marrying someone else in a different state."
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:06 AM on July 26, 2012


explosion: MA has gay marriage.

We do not have "gay marriage." We have "marriage." Other states have "limited, exclusionary marriage." If you like, please use the term "same-sex marriage," instead.

The state never asks any questions of those who marry with regard to their sexuality, their intentions of engaging in intercourse, etc.
I had a gay breakfast once.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:13 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


If I could waive my magic wand and make it happen, governments would ONLY have civil unions and a marriage would be reserved for religious ceremonies.

Your religion says that gays can't marry? Great, don't perform any gay marriages. All the government cares about is that two people want the government and society to consider them to be basically the same entity.

Most of the time, marriage officiants would also be granting the civil union so nothing would change for most people. If you're not religious or just want to go down to the courthouse, you can get a civil union without getting married. You could also get married without getting a civil union but the civil union would be the piece that carried all the legal benefits that marriage does now.

To me, there is a religious aspect to marriage that the government should have no business in.
posted by VTX at 11:15 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


"O, Superman. O, Judge. O, Mom & Mom."
posted by knile at 11:27 AM on July 26, 2012


I have no training in law, but I've actually been wondering how long it would take for this to become a national Constitutional issue - a state (such as NC) that doesn't recognize some marriages from another state (such as MA) while recognizing others from the same state surely has to be in violation of Article 4 of the Constitution. All it would take would be for a gay married couple from MA, which doesn't distinguish between "gay" and "straight" marriages, to get some marriage-based right denied them in NC and sue NC, claiming their rights under Article 4.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:05 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eustacescrubb, I don't know much about this whole area (obviously), but I am aware that that's pretty much the point of the Defense of Marriage Act - it allows states to not recognize gay marriages performed in other states, as they would normally have to under the constitution for the reasons you note.

This is one reason why the current administration has decided that the Act is unconstitutional and has declined to have the Justice Department defend it. (Thankfully for bigotry everywhere, House Republicans have taken it upon themselves to do so.)
posted by Naberius at 12:10 PM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks, Naberius - I wondered how DOMA played into the whole thing.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:13 PM on July 26, 2012


Correct. State laws called "baby DOMAs" implement DOMA by refusing to recognize out-of-state marriages.
posted by moammargaret at 12:53 PM on July 26, 2012


If I could waive my magic wand and make it happen, governments would ONLY have civil unions and a marriage would be reserved for religious ceremonies.

To me, there is a religious aspect to marriage that the government should have no business in.


People proposed this as a solution, but it didn't fly. And I know why. Because I had an interesting discussion with a co-worker, a good Baptist, about his opposition to gay marriage. He was very honest, and I managed to not be an asshole. And what it came down to, for him, is that he wanted the government to explicitly say that the pairing between two men, or two women, was different and lesser than the pairing between him and his wife.

So you can get to work on taking the government out of marriage, but I think most people have said "fuck it, it really is homophobia, let's remove sexuality restrictions from marriage".

There's also the question of where were all the people getting the government out of marriage before same-sex couples wanted to get married.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:56 PM on July 26, 2012


The Volokh Conspiracy - Gay Bigamists of New England: The more useful but less enticing headline: Massachusetts court treats out-of-state civil unions as equivalent to marriage, for purposes of applying the state ban on bigamy
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:12 PM on July 26, 2012


The whole linguistic thing is a non-starter. We already have the adjectival notion of "civil marriage" versus "church marriage" vs "religious marriage" etc and literally millions of atheists and secular humanists have gotten married. There's no there there.
posted by Wood at 10:25 AM on July 27, 2012


VTX: To me, there is a religious aspect to marriage that the government should have no business in.
Screw the two-minute edit window; where's our SUPERLIKE! button?
posted by IAmBroom at 11:11 AM on July 27, 2012


benito.strauss: There's also the question of where were all the people getting the government out of marriage before same-sex couples wanted to get married.
They're called polyamorists and polygamists, and due to bigamy laws and infidelity clauses in marriage law, they have to keep a quiet profile.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:12 AM on July 27, 2012


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