Equal Marriage For All

By Phil Katz



On July 1, 1998, Brookline gave health care benefits to the domestic partners of town and school employees. That was a great day. On November 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that gay men and lesbians have the constitutional right to marry. That was an even better day.

The granting of those "domestic partner benefit" rights did not just happen. It took years of work, negotiations, research, coalition building, Town Meeting debates and a Moderator's Committee. It took many brave individuals over the years to come out and talk about their sexuality -- to stand up to discrimination and harassment and hatred. Brookline stood up with gay men and lesbians in granting domestic partnership rights. Unfortunately, less than a year later, Brookline was forced to withdraw the benefit because of the threat of a lawsuit (and successful lawsuits elsewhere). Brookline employees have been in limbo ever since.

Now the courts have turned the tables and recognized the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. There was no judicial tyranny, no judicial activism. The SJC merely interpreted the state's Constitution and found nothing in it to deny these rights. In fact, after being asked by the state Senate for a ruling on "civil unions," the court reaffirmed its decision, saying that anything less than marriage would perpetuate second-class status and would be unconstitutional.

The SJC had just leapfrogged over Brookline's domestic partner benefits. What was once the leading edge of civil rights is now being considered the compromise! Now, what Brookline did seems so tame, so small. But it was important, a testament that many small political steps can add up to big gains.

Some people ask why my organization, the Brookline Educators Association, is involved in such an issue. As a professional organization, one of the BEA's precepts is the advancement of human and civil rights. As a union, we see that the full legalization of marriage gives our members equal pay for equal work. And, as teachers, we see this as supporting all of our students and their families.

Of course, I hear the arguments of those who oppose marriage for gays and lesbians. They mainly focus on the "sanctity of marriage," what I view as mainly a religious argument. One of our country's founding principles, the separation of church and state, gives religious organizations the right to decide for themselves whom they want to marry. The SJC's ruling does not affect in any way how any particular church, synagogue or mosque must behave. Those who want to defend the sanctity of marriage should support families by working to end domestic violence and poverty, among other social ills.

I see this "equal marriage" ruling (I do not call it "gay marriage" because the courts have not created a different marriage -- it's the same marriage we've always had, it's now just equally available to all of us) in a similar light to women's right to vote, African-Americans' right to equal education and other civil and equal rights decisions of the courts.  As an educator, I particularly see the parallels with the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. While the response to that decision was quite violent and disturbing, I hope that cooler heads prevail now, that people will eventually see this as a civil rights issue and not take the dramatic move to amend the constitution in order to single out one group for discrimination and diminish the rights of our citizens.

I and many others feel our marriages will mean more now that all our friends, family members, colleagues and fellow residents can marry. It is now a more inclusive institution and all the stronger for it.

In 2002, Brookline led the way in Massachusetts to fight the Unz petition initiative [against bilingual education] (Question 2), a discriminatory attempt to change educational law. It is my hope that Brookline leads the way again to stop this discriminatory initiative to amend the Constitution.

[Phil Katz is president of the Brookline Educators Association. This article appeared originally in the Brookline Tab.]

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