Massachusetts's highest court declared civil unions to be the "equivalent of marriage" in a ruling Thursday that was hailed by marriage-equality advocates.
The unanimous declaration from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court comes after a case in which a same-sex couple married in Massachusetts in 2005 filed for divorce only for one of the men to discover his husband was still in a civil union with another man in Vermont.
In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, the court ruled that a civil union in another state must first be dissolved before one partner could marry someone else in Massachusetts.
According to court documents, when Richard Elia married Todd Elia-Warnken in October 2005 he had no idea that Elia-Warnken was still part of a civil union he entered into in April 2003 with a Vermont man. Sometime after Elia-Warnken filed for divorce in April 2009, Elia discovered his husband was part of an undissolved civil union and filed to dismiss the divorce complaint.
Concluding civil unions to be equivalent to marriage, the court sided with Elia and declared the couple's marriage invalid on the basis that polygamy violates Massachusetts law.
The court stated that refusing to recognize a civil union would hinder "protection and furtherance of the rights of same-sex couples" and be inconsistent with the "core legal and public policy concerns" of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which helped legalize same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2003. Moreover, allowing Elia-Warnken two legal spouses could result in "uncertainty and chaos" because of obligations like child support, inheritance and health care coverage.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Elia-Warnken's lawyers had argued that civil unions and marriage were two different things and that Massachusetts's polygamy laws only applied to straight couples as defined by "husband" and "wife."
The court disagreed.
"Given our conclusion that a Vermont civil union is the equivalent of marriage in the Commonwealth, there is no merit to the plaintiff's assertion that the fact that his marriage license states that it was his first marriage is relevant," the court ruling read.
Despite the murky nature of the case, marriage equality supporters have lauded the court's decision as a victory for their cause.
Senior Staff Attorney Ben Klein of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), which represented Elia, said it was "a matter of consistently applying long established principles to the legal relationships of same-sex couples."
"We're pleased that the SJC decided that spouses in civil unions are bound by the same rules as spouses in a marriage when it comes to dissolving legal relationships before entering into a new legal relationship with a different person," Klein said in a statement.
[Photo: Chief Justice Roderick Ireland official portrait.]