April 20: History and the Debate over Marriage for Same-Sex Couples

This week's assignment asks you to reflect upon how history can - and cannot - help us understand the contemporary controversy over same-sex marriage. The core readings this week are documents from Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the court case that led to the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts. Whether you are writing this week, or simply reading, please use this as an opportunity to reflect back on material from across the course.


The relevant documents for this case are located on the GLAD website. This link should take you to the main page containing information and documents about the case of Goodrich et al. v. Department of Public Health: http://www.glad.org/work/cases/goodridge-et-al-v-dept-public-health/. You will find the readings for this week in the list of "Case Documents" on the right hand side of the page.

  1. The main reading "Amici Curiae Brief of Historians: The Constant Evolution of Legal Marriage" should be the third item listed under "Amicus Briefs Filed on Nov. 11, 2002." You will want to read this document in its entirety, but also look over the titles of the other briefs to get a sense of the way the case was argued.
  2. Next click the "Defendant's (Attorney General's) Brief" which appears sixth under the main "Case Documents" heading. Your will need to read the table of contents (pages i - iv, page images 1-5), the section defining the "plain and ordinary meaning" of marriage (pages 11-13; page images 42-44), and two sections in which historical arguments are most explicit (pages 17-23 and 40-47; images 48-54 and 77-85).
  3. Finally open the "SJC Decision," the final document nder the "Case Documents" heading. You should look through this entire document, paying close attention to the following:
    • In Marshall, C.J., writing for the majority: introductory paragraphs; section I; in section III, paragraphs between [FN 27] and [FN32]; section IV.
    • Greaney, J (concurring)
    • Spina, J. (dissenting, with whom Sosman and Cordy, JJ. join): intro paragraph and section I.
    • Sosman, J. (dissenting, with whom spina and Cordy, JJ. join)
    • Cordy, J. (dissenting, with whom Spina and Sosman, JJ. join): section A
    • Note that the footnotes for all of the decision appear in sequential order at the end of the text. Read these as you find necessary to understand the arguments.
  4. Please read at least one of the following, as your interests dictate:

Questions to Write About:

Approach 1: Defining Marriage

How should we define marriage? Write an essay explaining some of the different definitions at play in the Goodridge case. (Factors to consider include: civil v. religious, role of procreation, protection of children, status v. contract, source of social stability) Other questions you might want to consider as you develop your argument include: Why do competing interpreters think it important that their definition prevail? How do the definitions in the Goodridge case, and the arguments supporting them, compare with other attempts to define marriage that you have encountered in this course? How do these definitions compare with the understanding of marriage you brought into this course? How has your own understanding of marriage changed?

Approach 2: The Uses of Historical Arguments

What role does history play in the competing arguments in the Goodridge case? Additional questions your essay might consider include: Compare the claims made on behalf of each side. How are they different? How are they alike? How do these uses of history compare with the use of history in past arguments about marriage? What evidence from the course readings supports, challenges or complicates claims in the Goodridge case? What do you think history tells us? When is it persuasive? When does it obscure the issues?

As was the case with earlier assignments, please consult the history department's J300/J400 resource page and materials available from Writing Tutorial Services for help evaluating your writing. The J300/J400 site's suggestions for generating “manageable topics," and Writing Tutorial Services page on developing a thesis statement offer particulalry useful examples, against which you can compare your own question and thesis