BOSTON — The Supreme Court refused Friday to block Massachusetts from allowing gay marriages beginning Monday, removing the last legal impediment to what will be the nation’s first state-sanctioned same-sex weddings.
The justices declined without comment to intervene and block clerks from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in Massachusetts. The state’s highest court had ruled in November that the state constitution allows gay couples to marry, and declared that the process would begin Monday.
The Supreme Court’s decision, in an emergency appeal filed Friday by gay marriage opponents, does not address the merits of the claim that the state Supreme Judicial Court overstepped its bounds with the landmark decision.
A stay had been sought by a coalition of state lawmakers and conservative activists. The stay request had been filed with Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who handles appeals from the region. He referred the matter to the full nine-member court.
Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, which sought the stay, said he was disappointed by the ruling. He is still looking forward to arguing the case next month before the federal appeals court, and then this fall before the Supreme Court.
Advocates for same-sex couples were relieved to hear the Supreme Court declined to intervene. “Couples who aren’t tied in to the recent legal and legislative actions have been nervous wrecks about whether they could marry starting Monday,” said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. “Now they can all breathe a sigh of relief.”
A federal judge ruled against a coalition of state lawmakers and conservative activists, including groups in Boston, Michigan, Florida and Mississippi, on Thursday. The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision Friday, setting up the Supreme Court appeal. The appeals court agreed to hear arguments on the request to bar same-sex unions in June, after several weeks of legal gay marriages.
“This is a setback. This is certainly not the end of the road,” Staver said, adding that the Supreme Court rarely issues emergency injunctions. “We’re going to continue to the next step, and after that, we look forward to arguing the case before the Supreme Court, whether we win or lose – that’s where the case will ultimately end.”
Mary Bonauto, the lead attorney for the seven same-sex couples who sued the state for the right to marry, said she was relieved, but not surprised.
“Reduced to its essence, this has always been a case where people unhappy with the court ruling were trying to dress it up in a federal constitutional claim that Massachusetts was a tyranny,” Bonauto said.
But all the Supreme Judicial Court did in its ruling, she said, “was what courts have been doing for hundreds of years … reviewing laws for compliance with the Constitution and saying when laws deny basic rights to group of people.”
Staver had told justices in a filing that they were not asking the Supreme Court “to take any position on the highly politicized and personally charged issue of same-sex marriage.” Instead, Staver wrote, they wanted the court to consider whether the Massachusetts judges wrongly redefined marriage. That task should be handled by elected legislators, he said.
In the Supreme Court’s last ruling involving gay rights, justices ruled last year that states may not punish gay couples for having sex. In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia complained that the court “has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda” and was inviting same-sex marriage.