The Massachusetts Senate on Tuesday voted to repeal an obscure 1913 law that has been used to keep out-of-state same-sex couples from marrying there.
Legislators in the state House of Representatives in Boston are expected to take similar action today, and Gov. Deval Patrick has promised to sign the repeal. The move could allow gays and lesbians from other states to marry in Massachusetts within weeks.
"The governor has said several times he intends to support the repeal if it passes," spokeswoman Becky Deusser said. Patrick's daughter, Katherine, 18, announced last month that she is a lesbian.
In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. However, then-Gov. Mitt Romney invoked the 1913 law, which opponents said originally had been used to block interracial unions. The 95-year-old statute prevented out-of-state couples from obtaining licenses if their marriages would not be legally recognized in their home states.
In May, California became the second state to legalize gay marriage, following a state Supreme Court ruling.
The political climate in Massachusetts for solidifying gay marriage rights has brightened since 2004. Surveys show that more than half of the state's voters now accept some form of gay unions. "In poll after poll, the issue has gained mainstream support," said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University's Political Research Center.
Those who fought to repeal the 1913 statute said Tuesday that the move -- together with the California court decision -- could amplify political momentum nationwide. Hundreds of same-sex couples have taken their vows in California since June 16, when local jurisdictions began accepting civil marriage applications.
"The California ruling was a wake-up call for Massachusetts," said Marc Solomon, campaign director of MassEquality, a coalition backing same-sex unions. "We had to remove the last vestige of marriage discrimination on the books here."
The repeal was opposed by the Massachusetts Family Institute, a group that said the 1913 law legitimately upheld the authority of states to define marriage. "This law was deemed to be credible by our state courts just two years ago," said Kris Mineau, the institute's president. "There's no credible evidence that this law had any racist motivation."
In California, a group called Protect Marriage has gathered more than 1 million signatures in an effort to get a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage onto the November ballot. Similar ballot drives are underway in Florida and Arizona; Massachusetts ballot efforts can be approved only by the Legislature.
Nationally, the issue of gay marriage is being raised by Republican candidates in swing states such as Ohio, where social conservatives are a potent political force. GOP presidential candidate John McCain has come out in favor of the effort to overturn gay marriage laws, while his Democratic foe, Barack Obama, opposes the California initiative to outlaw such unions.
"We think this issue has lost some of its edge," Solomon said. "It's just not a big deal. Americans look at this and they wonder why these groups are constantly talking about gay marriage when gas prices and the war in Iraq are so much more critical."
A study commissioned by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development predicted that marriages of gay couples from New York and other Northeastern states could mean as much as $37 million in revenue for the state each year for the next three years -- and nearly $2 million a year in taxes.