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Gays enjoy a blissful and busy day of matrimony

More than 1,000 couples fill Massachusetts city halls and churches on a day opponents hope is the first of not too many that weddings are legal.

By wire services
Published May 18, 2004

BELCHERTOWN, Mass. - Behind a chest-high counter, beneath a "Proud to be an American" sign, the institution of marriage changed here Monday, as an assistant town clerk handed out the one-page forms that would allow gay couples to wed.

Colleen Toothill-Berte hadn't expected to help make history, but her boss was overseeing a local election, so it fell to her to take the town's first four marriage applications from same-sex couples.

"They're so excited about it," she said. "I had no idea what to expect."

With tears, vows and protests, gay marriage arrived in the 351 cities and towns of Massachusetts Monday morning. The weddings - the result of a 2001 lawsuit brought by seven gay couples and a landmark court ruling in November - bring the United States into the ranks of a handful of countries - the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Canada - where gays can wed.

"I guess the word I would have to use today is "surreal,' " said Peter Bez, a Provincetown innkeeper who took out a marriage license with his partner of 27 years, artist Chuck Anzalone.

Provincetown issued 154 marriage licenses Monday. Last year, 19 were issued. More than 1,000 couples sought licenses statewide Monday.

The nuptials ranged from quick city hall ceremonies to ornate weddings in downtown Boston churches, complete with champagne and fancy cakes. Massachusetts normally requires a three-day waiting period, but scores of couples got court waivers so they could wed immediately - some as early as 9:10 a.m.

On Boston's Beacon Hill, Julie and Hillary Goodridge - the lead plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit - were married by a Unitarian Universalist minister in the presence of ecstatic supporters and their 8-year-old daughter, Annie, who served as ring-bearer and flower girl.

"This isn't changing marriage. This is just opening the door," said Hillary Goodridge, 48.

By the end of the day, all seven gay couples involved in the court case had tied the knot.

While the nation's attention was focused Monday on Massachusetts, another battle was being waged in the nation's capital. In a series of news conferences and appearances, gay marriage opponents hoped to revive the push for a constitutional amendment.

"Usually something isn't believable until it is on fire, and heterosexual marriage has now been seriously damaged," said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chair of the Traditional Values Coalition, which opposes gay marriage, who held a news conference Monday with black clergy. "It's almost like the enemy has attacked and now there has to be a serious comeback. And I believe you're going to see a serious comeback in the next few months."

Only a few protesters showed up in Massachusetts, but President Bush renewed his call for Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages nationwide.

"The sacred institution of marriage should not be redefined by a few activist judges," Bush said.

A spokesman for the Coalition for Marriage, a group opposed to same-sex marriage, pledged to keep fighting for the amendment at the state and federal levels.

"We feel that just because same-sex marriage has been ruled legal, that does not make same-sex marriage right or healthy for society at large," said Ray McNulty, communications director of the Coalition for Marriage.

Massachusetts lawmakers are expected to take the issue of gay marriage back up in the 2005-06 session, with some hoping the Legislature will pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and establish gay civil unions. If it succeeds, it won't go before the voters until November 2006. And if voters pass it, it's unclear what it might mean for couples who marry before then.

Legal uncertainties also cloud the future for out-of-state couples who were married in defiance of the 1913 law that prevents the state from issuing marriage licenses to couples whose unions would be illegal in their home state. A Boston Globe survey showed that about 10 percent of couples getting licenses Monday were from out-of-state, including some from Florida.

The law was championed by Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican opposed to same-sex marriage, who had instructed Massachusetts town clerks to deny marriage licenses to nonresident couples. But officials in three municipalities said they would issue licenses to any couples who attested they knew of no impediment to their marriage. Romney remained out of public view Monday, but has said clerks who give licenses to nonresidents might face legal implications.

Lawsuits also are likely from gay couples married in Massachusetts who want their marriages recognized elsewhere.

Newlywed Jonathan Yarbrough, 30, of Minnesota said he wasn't concerned that he and his spouse don't have the resources to fight the fact that their marriage won't be recognized back home.

"We're sure there will be other couples who will challenge it," Yarbrough said, as he stood by their small wedding cake with its two groom figurines. "We'll just wait."

Attorneys general from Connecticut and Rhode Island issued opinions Monday indicating that gay marriages might be recognized in their jurisdictions, echoing a statement Friday from New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The opinions are not binding.

But on Monday, most thoughts were on the present day.

In Worcester, the first customers were Gary Chalmers, 38, and Richard Linnell, 41. The two men, both educators, sought to stress the ordinariness of their day by putting their 11-year-old daughter, Paige, on the school bus before heading over to City Hall just after 8 a.m.

Standing at a counter with a sign that read "Fishing and Hunting Licenses, This Window Only," they paid $25 in cash for the document known as a "marriage intention." They raised their right hands and swore that everything they said on the form was true. They then walked 10 blocks to the county's probate court, where Judge Susan Ricci issued them a waiver permitting their marriage to be "solemnized without delay."

That process cost $65 and took about 10 seconds.

"Good luck to both of you," the judge said, smiling warmly. They were married Monday night.

Kathryn Baker, 40, and Kim Emery, 40, of Gainesville said they had been turned away when they sought a license in Cambridge about 4 a.m. Monday because they declared that they did not live in Massachusetts and had no intention of doing so. The couple, who have been together 16 years, said a sympathetic clerk there all but suggested they state they might move to Massachusetts, but declined to issue a license when they refused. So they went to Somerville, where they had no problem. They filled out the application just as they had in Cambridge, used their Florida driver's licenses as identification, paid the $25 fee and walked away smiling.

- Information from the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, Cox News Service and Knight-Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

WHAT'S NEXT

MASSACHUSETTS: The Legislature, in the 2005-06 session, will take up a proposed amendment that would ban gay marriages but legalize civil unions. If approved, it would appear on the November 2006 ballot.

WASHINGTON: Congressional Republicans might seek a vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage nationwide. To be ratified, the measure would need backing from two-thirds of the House and Senate and approval by 37 state legislatures.

THE STATES: At least six states will have items on their ballots this fall proposing to amend their state constitutions to strengthen existing bans on gay marriage.

THE COURTS: Lawsuits have been filed in several states on behalf of gays seeking the right to marry, and more lawsuits are likely to arise on behalf of couples married in Massachusetts who want their unions recognized elsewhere.

- ASSOCIATED PRESS

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