With These Words

Photo: Alamy

“Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family … Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”

The words above come from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ­decision that made the state the first to authorize gay marriage. They are also part of a longer passage read last month at the Newport, Rhode Island, wedding ceremony of Gretchen Sisson and founding Facebook employee Andrew McCollum, who were among a growing number of straight couples turning to ­Goodridge v. Department of Public Health for a definition of matrimony that advances a philosophical, resonant, secular ­rationale for their heterosexual union.

The journey of Goodridge from law books to wedding programs likely began shortly after the case was resolved. In this first phase, couples included the ruling in their weddings to make an ideological statement. Conservatives had responded to the outcome in Massachusetts by placing anti-gay-marriage referenda on over a dozen state ballots. In the Kvetch forum of the now-defunct website Indiebride, lefty brides mulled “a way to include guests who were gay and couldn’t get married and show ­respect for them,” recalls Nina Callaway, who started as About.com’s weddings expert around the time. “It was about sending a message.” Someone suggested reading from the majority opinion by Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, the most bracing passages of which—such as one assessing what it means for some citizens to go “without the right to marry”—did not wear their political objective lightly.

But other parts of Marshall’s opinion offered no such defiance. With a little deft editing, respecting both the listener’s patience and the layperson’s general disinterest in legal footnotes, a bride- or groom-to-be could stitch together some of Marshall’s most elegant observations into an affirmative case for marriage that even the ­Westboro Baptist Church would not protest. As support for gay marriage increased, that softer packaging of Goodridge—and the universal themes it advances—found a foothold in the weddings canon.

It was Marshall’s line about “yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection” that grabbed Bethany Albertson when, in 2008, she started looking online for material to use in her secular ceremony that fall. “You get a lot of things you’ve seen at a lot of weddings,” says Albertson, a political scientist now at the University of Texas–Austin. “So I probably started Googling ‘alternative wedding readings.’ ” She and her fiancé, Josh, were fine with tweaking their more conservative guests but latched onto Good­ridge for how it challenged the couple’s own ideas about marriage. “For us, the thing was ‘How do you make it meaningful when it’s not a religious ceremony?’ ” says Albertson. “That opinion had to make the case why civil marriage was important.”

Today, Marshall’s words have found their place as a catalyst for self-reflection by young straight people guilty about or even contemptuous of marriage and needing to justify wanting to be part of an institution their progressive peers might well view as outmoded. “It’s not as much of a social demand these days,” says Callaway. “If you’re already doing a lot of the things that look like marriage but you are just not married, you may ask yourself: Why are we doing this?” For some, Goodridge helps fill in the answer. It helps, too, that “for a court opinion,” says Sisson, “it’s also just a beautiful piece of ­writing.”

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With These Words