On Monday, the wedding bells are due to start sounding in Massachusetts but not everyone will be in a celebratory mood. May 17 is the fateful day when, at the behest of the Supreme Judicial Court, same-sex marriage will become a legal reality.
This does not end the debate over what has become the commonwealth's most contentious social issue since the forced busing debacle of the 1970s. After the 2004 elections, the legislature will have to vote again on the recently approved constitutional amendment that would roll back gay marriage and replace it with civil unions. If Beacon Hill says "I do," the question will be placed on the ballot in 2006 for the voters to decide.
But even this possibly temporary interlude of same-sex nuptials has occasioned a great deal of wrangling and legal preparation. The legal incidents of marriage permeate so many existing arrangements and are buried in so many codes and clauses that untangling everything to include same-sex couples is a Herculean task, especially when faced with the persistent resistance of a substantial percentage (perhaps even a majority) of Massachusetts residents.
GOV. MITT ROMNEY has done everything in his power to leave the high court's Goodridge ruling weeping at the altar. When the passage of an amendment against gay marriage was jeopardized by 22 Republicans in the state House of Representatives who refused to vote for any amendment that allowed civil unions, Romney managed to sway 15 of them to support the compromise version as the only game in town.
After the amendment passed, he tried to persuade the commonwealth's highest court to issue a stay of its ruling until it could be voted up or down by the electorate. Attorney General Thomas Reilly, a Democrat and potential gubernatorial rival, refused to make that case for him on the grounds that it was a lost cause. Undaunted, Romney asked the legislature to give him the power to appoint a special counsel to ask for a stay on the Goodridge ruling.
When that proved to be a nonstarter, the governor decided that the next best thing was to try and prevent the Bay State from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage. His administration dusted off a 1913 statute that declared that any marriage of someone who could not be legally married in their home state would be null and void. The governor's office instructed the local clerks who issue marriage licenses to demand proof of residence from same-sex applicants.
Some clerks argued that this would be discriminatory since they have never asked heterosexuals to prove that they met the residency requirement. Liberal local officials threatened to revolt. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino told the Boston Globe, "There is a good chance I might defy the governor, but we're still looking at all our options. It's about civil rights. It's about uniting people. It's about showing that we don't discriminate in the city of Boston."
Romney softened his stance on how aggressive clerks needed to be at enforcing residency requirements and the city of Boston has since announced it will comply with the governor's guidelines. But Beantown's compliance did not come soon enough to avert jockeying among the commonwealth's cities and towns to see which could be the most accommodating of gay marriage.
Boston will have 20 city employees on hand at City Hall wearing "welcome" badges ready to take questions from same-sex marriage applicants. "It's the law," Menino insists. "Let's do it right, let's do it with respect." Cambridge, the home of Harvard University, plans to get a jump on other gay-friendly communities by beginning to issue marriage licenses to gay couples at the stroke of midnight.
Officials in heavily gay and lesbian Northampton did not see a midnight gay-marriage marathon as being necessary. "The point here is that we're treating people equally," Northampton Mayor Mary Clare Higgins reasoned. "We're opening the same time we always do."
Another community with a large gay population, Provincetown on Cape Cod, will also be opening its doors to marriage applicants at its normal time Monday. But unlike Boston, Cambridge and Northampton, Provincetown officials do plan on defying the governor by marrying out-of-state gay couples. They will be joined by Worcester, which is the state's second-largest city, and Somerville.
BY DOING SO, these cities are raising concerns that same-sex marriage in Massachusetts will lead to the redefinition of matrimony nationwide, despite widespread public disagreement. This has encouraged 11th hour attempts to get the federal courts put a halt to Goodridge before Monday. Matthew Staver, president and general counsel of the Florida-based social conservative organization Liberty Counsel, called the Bay State supremes' decision "a constitutional train wreck" as his group filed a last minute lawsuit to derail it. These efforts have been unsuccessful at this writing.
The grappling is not limited to the public sector. Private companies are also scurrying to make sure that their benefits plans conform to the changing legal climate. A former employer of mine announced that after a grace period, it was canceling its spousal equivalent domestic partnership benefits for gay Massachusetts employees. Gay and lesbian workers who want to continue coverage for their partners will have to get hitched just like everybody else. This will no doubt inconvenience and frustrate a few logical supporters of the new state policy, but at least at this company you can score one for Jonathan Rauch and other proponents of the "conservative case" for gay marriage.
Leaving aside what the impact of changing marriage will be on the culture, it is likely that after May 17 new practical glitches and conflicts will emerge that no one had anticipated. Things will probably still need to be worked out for months -- all without any guarantee that gay marriage will even continue to be permitted after November 2006.
Battling local clerks, posturing politicians, competing lawsuits, constitutional conventions, and a possible statewide vote all inject several cc's of unpredictably into the situation, but one thing is certain: Bay Staters are in for one long marital squabble.
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