2003-2004: Gay Marriage in Massachusetts and San Francisco

The debate over same-sex marriage in the nation had early beginnings. Below is a summary of some key state rulings on same-sex marriage. Because the laws are constantly changing in this area, it is important to check with your particular state on the current status of same-sex marriage.

The Massachusetts Victory

On November 18, 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that the state could not deny civil marriage to two members of the same sex who wished to marry. The court stayed its ruling for 180 days, so that the state legislature could address the issue. The legislature moved quickly to prohibit same-sex marriages, but voted to allow "civil unions," a category that was intended to be separate but legally equivalent to marriage. In February 2004, the Supreme Judicial Court issued an advisory opinion that concluded the proposed legislation was unconstitutional. This opinion paved the way for city and town clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples beginning in May 2004.

San Francisco's TopsyTurvy Beginnings

At the same time the marriage debate raged in Massachusetts, the issue was heating up in San Francisco as well. In February 2004, the county clerk, acting on orders of San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, began to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Couples from all around the U.S. flocked to the city to get married. Issuance of licenses was halted when the California Supreme Court issued a temporary stay on March 11, 2004. By that time, however, more than four thousand same-sex marriages had been performed.

In early September 2005, the California legislature approved a bill to permit homosexual marriage. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill on September 29, 2005.

On May 15, 2008, the state Supreme Court found marriage to be a fundamental right between heterosexual and other citizens and struck down laws banning same-sex marriage.

In November 2008, Prop 8 (a bill on the November ballot that sought to protect marriage between a man and a woman) passed and same-sex marriage in California was illegal again.

In August 2010, a federal court declared Prop 8 unconstitutional, but stayed the prior court’s ruling to halt same-sex marriages until further review. However, the State of California, who would normally argue in defense of the Proposition, declined to do so. The supporters stepped in as the Proposition's defense. This required a separate court decision from the California Supreme Court, which held that Prop. 8's supporters were allowed to defend the proposition instead of the State.

In February, 2012, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

In June, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Prop. 8 in Hollingsworth v. Perry. Instead of directly addressing the question of whether a state may pass laws that make same sex marriage illegal, the Court instead gave the decision back to the California state and federal courts. The Court found that the earlier decision which allowed Prop. 8's supporters to defend the proposition to be incorrect, which invalidates the court decisions which followed. The legal effect of this ruling will permit same sex couples to marry in California.

Next Steps

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