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Massachusetts Gears Up for Gay 'I Do's'

There's a 'sense of urgency' that the right to wed, which goes into effect May 17, could be brief if a constitutional ban becomes law.

March 31, 2004|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For weeks now, Margaret Drury has fielded a steady flow of inquiries from gay and lesbian couples wondering how to get marriage licenses on May 17, when Massachusetts is scheduled to become the first state where same-sex marriage is legal.

But the volume of calls to the Cambridge city clerk surged Tuesday as prospective brides and grooms reacted to the Legislature's approval Monday of a constitutional amendment that two years from now could take away their right to wed. The amendment would, however, allow civil unions for gay couples.

"Many people who have called today have expressed a sense of urgency -- as if they'd better do this fast, if they're going to do it at all," Drury said. "It's interesting, because, really, for the towns and city clerks in Massachusetts, nothing has changed between yesterday and today."

The sense of desperation stems from the fact that the state's most prominent gay-marriage foe, Gov. Mitt Romney, is seeking a stay of the Supreme Judicial Court decision that legalized such unions until the amendment makes its way through the legislative process and can be put to a popular vote.

Supporters of gay and lesbian marriage vow to block the amendment from becoming law.

In compliance with the court's ruling, clerks will begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples on May 17. Drury says that her staff has held meetings and that the state will soon issue updated forms to accommodate same-sex couples.

Drury briefly considered opening her office at 12:01 a.m. May 17 so that gay and lesbian couples could pick up licenses the minute they became legal. At least one town clerk in Vermont took that approach four years ago when that state legalized civil unions. But Drury worried about overtime costs, among other things.

In Massachusetts, the price of a marriage license varies from town to town. Some clerks have welcomed the expected flood of gay and lesbian couples as an occasion to raise their rates, earning a little extra for cash-strapped municipalities. On Cape Cod, for example, Provincetown has upped the license fee to $30 from $20.

"The town wanted to raise it even more, but everyone thought it was unfair," said Aaron Leventman, Provincetown's assistant town clerk.

Since the high court decision, Provincetown -- long a popular vacation destination for gay and lesbian couples -- has been marketing itself as "the gay Niagara Falls." Leventman said the Legislature's action would probably increase business. "There seems to be a sense among some people that they should strike while the iron is hot," he said.

In Cambridge, Drury chose to leave the fee at $15 -- not much more than a couple of cappuccinos at some of the town's more fashionable spots. Rather than creating gay- and lesbian-friendly vows, she also decided to rely on one of her standard ceremonies.

"Cambridge being Cambridge," she said of the city housing three universities across the river from Boston, "there are a lot of [heterosexual] people who have lived together for 20 years and are finally coming in to get married. I have this wonderful ceremony that talks about the commitment they have already made, as well as the commitment they are now making to the future."

In Massachusetts, couples must wait three days after a license is issued before they can be married. Thus, Chuck Colbert and Troy Golladay plan to have Drury marry them in Cambridge's grand, 115-year-old town hall on May 20 -- the first official date for same-sex weddings. In the fall, the couple plan to have a religious ceremony.

"We felt we needed to do the civil marriage now, right away, because of all this crazy nuttiness with the Legislature," said Colbert, 48, a freelance journalist. "We have been waiting a long time to do this, and to wait longer doesn't make sense."

Besides, Colbert said, "I think it will help when gay people actually get married: Here come the brides, here come the grooms. The sooner that this is a reality, the sooner we can move on."

The amendment approved by the Legislature on Monday would limit marriage to a union between a man and a woman -- and would establish civil unions for same-sex couples. Gay and lesbian couples who exchange wedding vows beginning in May will not have their marriages undone if the amendment becomes law in 2006, said Mary L. Bonauto, a lawyer at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. Nor can those marriages be converted retroactively to civil unions, she added.

"Nobody's going to take their marriages away, that's just not doable. People who are married are married," said Bonauto, who represented seven plaintiff couples in the Supreme Judicial Court case.

But just minutes after the Legislature voted to approve the amendment, Romney asked Atty. Gen. Tom Reilly to seek a stay of the court decision. Reilly said no, saying he didn't like the ruling, but it was his responsibility to uphold it.

On Tuesday, Romney sent Reilly an icy letter asking him to appoint a special assistant attorney general to take the case.

"It is not right for the attorney general to leave the governor and the people of Massachusetts without recourse to the courts on a matter of critical importance," the Republican governor wrote to his Democratic attorney general. "Everyone has a right to legal representation."

Reilly again refused, declaring at a news conference Tuesday: "The arguments that have been made are not legal arguments. They are political arguments. The governor is perfectly entitled to make those arguments to the body politic."

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