Mass. gay marriage ruling fuels debate at U’s Law School

Tuesday's decision marks the first time a state high court ruled that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.

Some law experts who gathered at the University on Saturday supported a recent Massachusetts court ruling that prohibits the state from outlawing gay marriage, but others questioned the ruling’s timing and effectiveness.

As gay rights activists and opponents scrambled nationwide this week to react to another landmark court decision, experts gathered at the University’s Law School to debate the issues.

The discussion was intended to focus on Lawrence v. Texas – this summer’s Supreme Court ruling that deemed a Texas anti-sodomy law unconstitutional – but expanded to include Tuesday’s Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that prohibited that state’s Legislature from banning same-sex marriages.

It was the first time a state high court ruled gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry.

Jonathan Rauch, the symposium’s keynote speaker and writer for the National Journal, said he changed his speech topic after Tuesday’s decision.

“We as a country are on the cusp of a momentous decision,” Rauch said. “It’s funny how much life has changed over the past week.”

Rauch supports same-sex marriages but said same-sex couples should not marry simply for legal purposes.

“Marriage is not just a piece of paper or pile of benefits,” he said. “It’s a unique promise one makes to another in the presence of a community.”

He also said civil unions weaken the idea of marriage and are bad policy for the future of same-sex marriage.

“Homosexuals don’t have the promise of marriage in our relationships,” Rauch said. “The words ‘Will you marry me?’ will transform gay life.”

Other panelists, however, said civil unions are an important step toward marriage.

Dale Carpenter, a University law professor, said the Massachusetts decision is too much, too soon.

“I don’t think the Massachusetts decision is particularly convincing,” Carpenter said. “It plays a game of chicken with the electorate.”

Carpenter said he supports the policy as a positive step for gay rights but said there is currently too much political opposition for same-sex marriage.

The panelists also debated whether it was appropriate for courts – and not state legislatures – to make decisions about same-sex marriages.

Georgetown University law professor Chai Feldblum said courts and legislatures have to work together. She also said same-sex couples deserve a full range of marriage options.

University law professor Miranda McGowan said the Texas ruling was more insightful than a typical American’s reaction to gay rights.

“The Massachusetts decision was great,” she said. “But Massachusetts should recognize civil unions first.”