Massachusetts Court Limits Gay Marriage to Residents

Two years after making Massachusetts the nation's first and only state to legalize gay marriage, the state Supreme Court rules that, in most cases, same-sex partners from out of state cannot come to Massachusetts to get married.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A ruling on gay marriage today from the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Two years ago, the court made Massachusetts the first and only state to legalize gay marriage. Today, it refused to open the doors to most out-of-state couples that want to tie the knot. But there may be an opening for some couples from at least a few states. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH reporting:

Right after gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts, Governor Mitt Romney said he wanted to make sure Massachusetts didn't become the Las Vegas of gay marriage, and he ordered city and town clerks to turn out-of-staters away. To do so, he cited a nearly century-old law that says couples cannot marry here if their marriage would be void at home. Eight couples sued arguing that it was discriminatory to dust off the old law just for the purpose of keeping them from marrying. But today the Court sided mostly with Romney saying Massachusetts shouldn't marry couples who are just trying to “evade the laws of their home states.” Romney says he's glad that Massachusetts will not be able to impose its way on others.

Governor MITT ROMNEY (Massachusetts): I feel that this is an important victory for those of us who wanted to preserve traditional marriage and to make sure that the mistake of Massachusetts doesn't become the mistake of the entire country.

SMITH: But the court decision doesn't close the door for all same sex couples. If a couple's home state is silent on the issue of gay marriage, that is if the state neither allows nor prohibits gay marriage, Massachusetts may not be able to turn couples down.

Michele Granda is an attorney for gay and lesbian advocates and defenders.

Ms. MICHELE GRANDA (Attorney for Gay and Lesbian advocates): The commonwealth took an overly dramatic reading of the statute to block every same sex couple from every state from coming here. And now we know, based on the court's decision, that some couples are legally able to come here to marry.

SMITH: Among those may be Wendy Becker and Mary Norton from Rhode Island, one of the handful of states with no DOMA, or Defensive Marriage Act, that would bar gay marriage. After 17 years together and two kids, Becker and Norton tried but failed to get a license in Massachusetts. Today, Becker says they're heartened to know that they may soon get what they were looking for. But they're disappointed that many friends will not.

Ms. WENDY BECKER (Gay Marriage Advocate): We were really hoping to be celebrating today. But my feelings, anyway, are really tempered by the fact that other people can't. And that's really hard to hear.

SMITH: Especially so for plaintiffs Paul Truby(ph) and Mark Pursell(ph) who came from their home in Connecticut to City Hall in Wooster, Massachusetts two years ago carrying Pursell's mother's wedding ring. She gave it to them days before she died as a symbol of her hope that one day they could legally marry. Pursell says he thought of his mother when he first got his marriage license, and then again when he was told that license would not be validated.

Mr. MARK PURSELL (Gay Marriage Advocate): She actually said that one of the reasons that she was doing this is that the laws had not yet caught up to allow us to get legally married. And it seems that they still haven't caught up. We thought that they had and that is disappointing.

SMITH: But Pursell says no one expected it to be easy. Indeed, even if some out-of-staters do manage to get a marriage license in Massachusetts, that would be just half the battle. They would still face an entirely different challenge to get their marriage recognized back home.

William Eskridge is a professor at Yale Law School

Mr. WILLIAM ESKRIDGE (Professor, Yale Law School): This makes clear, what I think has been clear for some time, that state recognition of either same-sex marriages or civil unions is going to proceed state by state. It's not going to come over night. And this is going to last for 10, 15, 20 years as the nation sorts this out.

SMITH: And even Massachusetts is still trying to sort it out. Right now in the works here are an effort to repeal the law banning out-of-staters, so same-sex couples from any state could marry here, and there's also a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage for anyone in state or out.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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