Massachusetts SJC: Civil Unions Equivalent to Marriage

GLAD Applauds Groundbreaking Ruling

In an important unanimous decision issued today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled for the first time that a civil union must be treated as equivalent to marriage.

The ruling came in the case Elia-Warnken v. Elia. Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) represented Richard Elia, who obtained a license to marry Todd Warnken in October 2005. Mr. Elia did not know at the time that Mr. Warnken was in a civil union with another person, which they had entered into in Vermont in April 2003. Mr. Warnken and Mr. Elia lived together as spouses until December 2008, and Mr. Warnken filed for divorce in April 2009. Upon learning that Mr. Warnken had never dissolved his pre-existing civil union, Mr. Elia filed a motion to dismiss the divorce complaint, arguing that because of the civil union their marriage was never valid and therefore there was nothing to dissolve.

The SJC agreed. “[R]efusing to recognize a civil union would be inconsistent with the core legal and public policy concerns articulated in Goodridge … protection and furtherance of the rights of same-sex couples.”

“It has always been the law of the Commonwealth that a person may have only one spouse at a time, and this was simply a matter of consistently applying long established principles to the legal relationships of same-sex couples,” said Senior Staff Attorney Ben Klein. “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.”

“The Court made a fair decision that ensures that other people in my situation will be treated equally, because no one should have to go through what I’ve been through,” said Mr. Elia. “I am happy this case is over and I can move on with my life.”


The decision can be read on here on GLAD’s website.


Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders is New England’s leading legal organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity and expression.

Anthony Brown

Anthony Brown

Attorney and Advocate at Time For Families
Who am I? On the deepest level, I am blessed. I have an amazing partner, who I have known since 1989 and been married to since 2004. I am the donor dad of two beautiful daughters who have two moms who are equally amazing. My husband and I have expanded our family through surrogacy and have a seven-year old son. I have had three careers (acting, massage therapy and the law) and I am still discovering myself. I am the Board Chair of Men Having Babies. The one thing I know for sure is that life is about trusting your instincts. Family is an instinct.
Anthony Brown