A sharply divided Connecticut Supreme Court struck down the state’s civil union law on Friday and ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Connecticut thus joins Massachusetts and California as the only states to have legalized gay marriages.
The ruling, which cannot be appealed and is to take effect on Oct. 28, held that a state law limiting marriage to heterosexual couples, and a civil union law intended to provide all the rights and privileges of marriage to same-sex couples, violated the constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law.
Striking at the heart of discriminatory traditions in America, the court — in language that often rose above the legal landscape into realms of social justice for a new century — recalled that laws in the not-so-distant past barred interracial marriages, excluded women from occupations and official duties, and relegated blacks to separate but supposedly equal public facilities.
“Like these once prevalent views, our conventional understanding of marriage must yield to a more contemporary appreciation of the rights entitled to constitutional protection,” Justice Richard N. Palmer wrote for the majority in a 4-to-3 decision that explored the nature of homosexual identity, the history of societal views toward homosexuality and the limits of gay political power compared with that of blacks and women.
“Interpreting our state constitutional provisions in accordance with firmly established equal protection principles leads inevitably to the conclusion that gay persons are entitled to marry the otherwise qualified same-sex partner of their choice,” Justice Palmer declared. “To decide otherwise would require us to apply one set of constitutional principles to gay persons and another to all others.”
The ruling was groundbreaking in various respects. In addition to establishing Connecticut as the third state to sanction same-sex marriage, it was the first state high court ruling to hold that civil union statutes specifically violated the equal protection clause of a state constitution. The Massachusetts high court held in 2004 that same-sex marriages were legal, while California’s court decision in May related to domestic partnerships and not the more broadly defined civil unions.
The Connecticut decision, which elicited strong dissenting opinions from three justices, also opened the door to marriage a bit wider for gay couples in New York, where state laws do not provide for same-sex marriages or civil unions, although Gov. David A. Paterson recently issued an executive order requiring government agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
The opinion in Connecticut was hailed by jubilant gay couples and their advocates as a fulfillment of years of hopes and dreams. Hugs, kisses and cheers greeted eight same-sex couples as they entered the ballroom at the Hartford Hilton, where four years ago they had announced they would file a lawsuit seeking marriage licenses.
One of those couples, Joanne Mock, 53, and her partner, Elizabeth Kerrigan, 52, stood with their twin 6-year-old sons, choking back tears of joy and gratitude. Another plaintiff, Garret Stack, 59, introduced his partner, John Anderson, 63, and said: “For 28 years we have been engaged. We can now register at Home Depot and prepare for marriage.”
Religious and conservative groups called the ruling an outrage but not unexpected, and spoke of steps to enact a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, blamed “robed masters” and “philosopher kings” on the court. “This is about our right to govern ourselves,” he said. “It is bigger than gay marriage.”
But the state, a principal defendant in the lawsuit, appeared to be resigned to the outcome.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell said that she disagreed with the decision, but would uphold it. “The Supreme Court has spoken,” she said. “I do not believe their voice reflects the majority of the people of Connecticut. However, I am also firmly convinced that attempts to reverse this decision, either legislatively or by amending the state Constitution, will not meet with success.”
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said his office was reviewing the decision to determine whether laws and procedures will have to be revised — local officials will issue marriage licenses to gay couples without question, for example — but he offered no challenge and said it would soon be implemented.
The case was watched far beyond Hartford. Vermont, New Hampshire and New Jersey all have civil union statutes, while Maine, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii have domestic partnership laws that allow same-sex couples many of the same rights granted to those in civil unions. Advocates for same-sex couples have long argued that civil unions and domestic partnerships denied them the financial, social and emotional benefits accorded in a marriage.
The legal underpinnings for gay marriages, civil unions and statutory partnerships have all come in legislative actions and decisions in lawsuits. Next month, however, voters in California will decide whether the state Constitution should permit same-sex marriage.
The Connecticut case began in 2004 after the eight same-sex couples were denied marriage licenses by the town of Madison. Reflecting the contentiousness and wide interest in the case, a long list of state, national and international organizations on both sides filed friend-of-the-court briefs. The plaintiffs contended that the denial of marriage licenses deprived them of due process and equal protection under the law.
While the case was pending, the legislature in 2005 adopted a law establishing the right of same-sex partners to enter into civil unions that conferred all the rights and privileges of marriage. But, at the insistence of the governor, the law also defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Arguments in the case centered on whether civil unions and marriages conferred equal rights, and on whether same-sex couples should be treated as what the court called a “suspect class” or “quasi-suspect class” — a group, like blacks or women, that has experienced a history of discrimination and was thus entitled to increased scrutiny and protection by the state in the promulgation of its laws.
Among the criteria for inclusion as a suspect class, the court said, were whether gay people could “control” their sexual orientation, whether they were “politically powerless” and whether being gay had a bearing on one’s ability to contribute to society.
A lower-court judge, Patty Jenkins Pittman of Superior Court in New Haven, sided with the state, denying that gay men and lesbians were entitled to special consideration as a suspect class and concluding that the differences between civil unions and marriages amounted to no more than nomenclature. The Supreme Court reversed the lower-court ruling.
“Although marriage and civil unions do embody the same legal rights under our law, they are by no means equal,” Justice Palmer wrote in the majority opinion, joined by Justices Flemming L. Norcott Jr., Joette Katz and Lubbie Harper. “The former is an institution of transcendent historical, cultural and social significance, whereas the latter is not.”
The court said it was aware that many people held deep-seated religious, moral and ethical convictions about marriage and homosexuality, and that others believed gays should be treated no differently than heterosexuals. But it said such views did not bear on the questions before the court.
“There is no doubt that civil unions enjoy a lesser status in our society than marriage,” the court said. “Ultimately, the message of the civil unions law is that what same-sex couples have is not as important or as significant as real marriage.”
In one dissenting opinion, Justice David M. Bordon contended that there was no conclusive evidence that civil unions are inferior to marriages, and he argued that gay people have “unique and extraordinary” political power that does not warrant heightened constitutional protections.
Justice Peter T. Zarella, in another dissent, argued that the state marriage laws dealt with procreation, which was not a factor in gay relationships. “The ancient definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has its basis in biology, not bigotry,” he wrote.
About 1,800 couples have obtained civil unions in Connecticut since the law was adopted three years ago, although gay-rights advocates say the demand has slowed. They cite complaints that the unions leave many people feeling not quite married but not quite single, facing forms that mischaracterize their status and questions at airports challenging their ties to their own children.
But marriage will soon be a possibility for gay couples like Janet Peck, 55, and Carol Conklin, 53, of West Hartford, who have been partners for 33 years. “I so look forward to the day when I can take this woman’s hand, look deeply into her eyes and pledge my deep love and support and commitment to her in marriage,” Ms. Peck said.