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Free to marry

Historic date arrives for same-sex couples in Massachusetts

Massachusetts becomes the first state in the nation today to permit gay and lesbian couples to wed, after centuries of religious, social, and legal obstacles that have prevented people of the same sex from marrying in the United States.

The first same-sex couples were expected to apply for licenses at Cambridge City Hall at a minute past midnight, following a wedding cake-and-champagne celebration presided over by Mayor Michael A. Sullivan. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, couples had to wait until city and town clerks' offices opened this morning to apply for licenses to marry.

Armed with a judge's waiver of the state's three-day waiting period, some couples were expected to be married by day's end. All seven plaintiff couples who brought the case that led to the historic Supreme Judicial Court ruling last November legalizing gay marriage were expected to marry today. Other couples planned marriages today, but many want to wait until later this week or beyond.

"It is an historic day," said Mary Bonauto, the legal director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which brought the suit that led to the SJC decision granting same-sex couples marriage rights. "This is extraordinarily significant on a personal level, and for the history of our country. Our country has always promised we are all equal under the law, and tomorrow, more citizens will be equal under the law than has been the case to date."

Some out-of-state couples are expected to seek licenses today, forcing an immediate question about the validity of the licenses. Governor Mitt Romney, who opposes gay marriage, has said that, under a 1913 law, only residents of Massachusetts are eligible to marry same-sex partners, and if couples come from other states seeking to marry, their unions will be void because same-sex marriage is illegal in other states. Gay advocates disagree with Romney's application of the law, and the dispute is likely to head into the courts in coming months.

Attorneys general in Rhode Island and Connecticut are set to issue opinions today on whether their states will recognize gay marriages from Massachusetts. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has informed the Romney administration that he believes Massachusetts gay marriages will be honored in his state, but Governor George E. Pataki disagrees with that assessment.

In cities and towns in the state, supporters of gay marriage coordinated the day with an eye toward history and maximum media impact. With the help of Boston officials, couples who were plaintiffs in the 2001 suit that led to the historic SJC ruling will be brought to the front of the line to get their paperwork. The three plaintiff couples who live in Boston, including Julie and Hillary Goodridge, for whom the case was named, were to be first in line at Boston City Hall this morning, greeted by Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

Members of Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians will be visiting town halls, giving flowers to waiting couples. And some city and town halls will host celebrations later today, including an ice cream social hour in Belmont and a "Community Celebration of Equality and Family," with speakers and entertainers, hosted by Mayor David B. Cohen in Newton, home to plaintiff couple Ellen Wade and Maureen Brodoff.

Meanwhile, Cambridge, with its reputation for liberal politics and vibrant advocacy, prepared to be the first in the nation to issue marriage applications to gay couples. The first couple arrived at Cambridge City Hall at midnight Saturday -- a full 24 hours before marriage licenses were made available.

Longtime Cambridge residents Susan Shepherd and Marcia Hams said they had been waiting 27 years for this opportunity, and the couple raised a 24-year-old son together.

"This is amazing," Shepherd said. "You never thought this would ever happen, not in any amount of lifetimes you could think about."

Shepherd and Hams spent Saturday night in sleeping bags and under tarps near the front entrance to City Hall. The couple plan to marry Sunday at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, a Unitarian Universalist church, with a reception to be held in September.

"We just didn't imagine we could ever have this," Hams said.

The couple had been carefully selected to be first in line by gay advocacy groups, including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and GLAD. Those advocates are eager to see media attention trained on the right kind of couples in the first hours of gay marriage: those with deep local roots, so their residency -- the focus of enormous controversy over gay marriage in the past few weeks -- is not in question. Gay advocates are trying to avoid disputes over residency and political sparring today, fearing it will take the focus off what they say should be a day of celebration.

By 7 p.m., 29 couples were lined up outside Cambridge City Hall. Passing motorists honked their horns in support, and local residents dropped off bouquets of flowers and coffee, muffins, and cupcakes to the couples who put in long hours in the drizzle outside City Hall.

"We're well-taken care of," said Sasha Hartman, a 29-year-old South End resident who joined her partner of seven years, Alex Fennell, as the fifth couple lined up on the steps of City Hall. "Every time someone honks, I get goosebumps."

About 9:30 p.m., about five protesters from Topeka, Kansas, arrived, carrying signs in the protest area the city set up across Massachusetts Avenue. Some of the couples in line jeered at them.

Massachusetts law requires a three-day waiting period between submitting a marriage license application and the actual issuance of a license. But that waiting period can be waived by a judge. Some gay couples got waivers even before they applied for marriage licenses.

Sullivan, Cambridge's mayor, said that, even if couples have waivers, no marriage licenses will be issued until after City Hall opens for business today at 8:30 a.m. Couples hoping for waivers in Middlesex County today will find extra courtrooms open at the district court to accommodate them.

Sullivan was planning to serve wedding cake and offer congratulations after midnight last night.

"This is a day to set aside the political issue," Sullivan said. "It's about being welcoming."

In Somerville, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone planned to formally welcome couples at 8 a.m., to serve refreshments, and to have extra people on hand to greet couples and direct them to the appropriate offices. He said he decided to allow out-of-state couples to marry in Somerville.

"We're not going to create a new standard for same-sex couples that doesn't apply to out-of-state couples," Curtatone said. "It's about fairness and justice at this point."

Clerks in Worcester, Provincetown, and Springfield have also vowed to defy the governor's directive, even though Romney has threatened to prosecute them for doing so.

And scores of GLAD volunteers will be on hand in larger cities to help applicants with their forms. At GLAD's headquarters in Boston, 40 volunteers will man phones in a "hotline room," between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. all week. They will track the progress of licenses in the state's 351 cities and towns, and troubleshoot when couples run into difficulties. Around the room, volunteers will write up successes and problems in columns headed "good news" and "bad news."

Some who have led the fight against gay marriage have said they would not lead protests today. They said they preferred to save their energy for upcoming fights to replace legislators who voted down a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and to fight for passage of that amendment in 2006. But other opponents have planned demonstrations.

Cambridge police received reports yesterday that several white supremacist groups planned protests in the area, and officials beefed up patrols.

"If they cause a problem, we have rooms for them to stay at," said Frank Pasquarello, public information officer for the Cambridge Police Department. "We're pretty confident that what we have out there [in patrols] is sufficient right now. If we start having problems, we'll have more officers there quickly."

Another group, the Article 8 Alliance, planned a protest at Boston City Hall Plaza at noon today. The group seeks the ouster of the Massachusetts SJC judges who handed down the Goodridge decision last year. If they don't protest today, said Brian Camenker, who heads the group, they will have no credibility.

"If we just sit around with our hands in our pockets and don't say something, I don't think the world will think we think this is important," he said. "For people not to make a statement would almost be a crime."

Romney's spokeswoman said today would be a "normal work day" for the governor. He was to spend the day in the State House, then attend a forum on education in Framingham in the evening, said Shawn Feddeman, via e-mail. She said that, even though he opposes gay marriage, "the governor expects everyone to respect the law and respect one another." 

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