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Equal under the law

THE SUPREME Judicial Court's advisory opinion that civil unions are no substitute for gay marriage removes any doubt that the court meant what it said with its landmark ruling last November. Yesterday's order means that gays will be allowed to marry under civil law in Massachusetts beginning in May. The court's clarity that the state Constitution upholds the dignity and equality of all people is bracing and welcome.


We sincerely hope this reaffirmation of rights does not fuel efforts to write an explicit ban of gay marriage into the Constitution, which the Legislature is scheduled to consider next Wednesday. The guess here is that once May arrives and the world keeps spinning -- once it is apparent that the meaning and value of heterosexual marriage are utterly unchanged by including gays -- most people in Massachusetts will be reassured, and many will be proud.

The Massachusetts Senate sought yesterday's ruling on a bill that would have established a new class of civil unions for gay couples with parallel rights to "traditional" marriage. But as American history makes clear, separate is hardly ever equal.

"The [Senate] bill maintains an unconstitutional, inferior, and discriminatory status for same-sex marriage," the opinion reads. Although the legislation might seem a reasonable compromise to some, the court said it would perpetuate inequality under the law, and "No amount of tinkering with language will eradicate that stain."

At the end of the play "Angels in America," the character Prior Walter has survived the panicky, intolerant early years of AIDS. It is 1990, and he is full of optimism for the coming millennium. "We won't die secret deaths any more," he predicts. "The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come."

Just so. The SJC is spinning the world inexorably forward. It is time for gays to become full citizens, afforded the rights of all.

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Gay population
The 2000 Census estimated there were about 19,000 gay couples in Mass., and about 659,000 nationwide, or less than 1 percent of households. Provincetown is the community in Mass. with the highest rate of gay partners, about 15 percent of households.
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