Governor Deval Patrick has ordered the state Department of Public Health to officially record the marriages of 26 out-of-state gay couples whose unions Governor Mitt Romney had blocked from being entered into the state's vital records.
Patrick's move emphasizes his administration's sharp differences with his predecessor on gay marriage. The issue is largely symbolic; neither Romney's refusal to record the marriages nor Patrick's reversal of that order affects the legal status of the marriages. But an aide said Patrick wanted to reverse an action taken by Romney that the new administration sees as discriminatory.
"There was no legal basis for separating these certificates in the first place," said Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for Patrick. "It appears like the prior administration was politicizing a routine administrative function."
Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for Romney, now a presidential candidate, responded that Romney was correct to refuse to record the marriages because Massachusetts law does not recognize marriage between same-sex couples from outside the state.
"It was Governor Romney's enforcement of this law that stopped gay marriage from being visited on every other state in the country," Fehrnstrom wrote in an e-mail. "Now that Governor Romney is out of office, we are seeing an erosion of the previously strong defense of traditional marriage coming out of the executive branch."
In March 2006, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Romney and Thomas F. Reilly, the state attorney general at the time, could rely on a 1913 law to prohibit out-of-state couples from marrying in Massachusetts. The court ruled that if a couple's home state expressly prohibits same-sex marriages, that couple would not be eligible to marry here.
Gay couples from Rhode Island are the only out-of-state gay couples who are currently allowed to wed in Massachusetts; a judge in September 2006 ruled that Rhode Island laws do not explicitly prohibit gay marriages. Two of the 26 couples whose records were not processed by Romney were from Rhode Island, according to the governor's office.
On Friday, Ben Clements, Patrick's chief legal counsel, instructed John Auerbach, commissioner of the Department of Public Health, to "bind and index" the marriage certificates of the 26 couples. Each of those marriages will be recorded in the state's Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, along with all other marriage records.
Mark Pearsall, 40, and Paul Trubey, 43, who own a dairy goat farm in Lebanon, Conn., traveled to Worcester to marry in May 2004. Pearsall said yesterday he was delighted to hear about Patrick's decision.
"I think it's a wonderful thing he's decided to come out and say that he's not going to stand by this arbitrary decision that was done in, I think, a mean-spirited and politically motivated arena," he said.
Advocates of same-sex marriage said the move was long overdue.
"This is huge politically," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "It's very significant, and it is yet one more example of the huge difference between Patrick and Romney. Patrick is dedicated to equalizing the playing field for the gay community and ending all forms of discrimination."
Each of the 26 couples at issue was married just after May 17, 2004, the date gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts. All obtained marriage licenses in one of four communities -- Provincetown, Worcester, Springfield, and Somerville -- where clerks defied Romney's order not to issue marriage licenses to out-of-state gay couples.
Romney obtained those marriage records from the clerks and stopped the state from processing them, which meant the state had no record of the marriages. The marriages were recorded at the local level, however.
Shortly thereafter, Romney asked Reilly to force city and town clerks to stop issuing marriage licenses to out-of-state gay couples who did not intend to live here. Eight couples and 13 city and town clerks sued.
Since 2004, clerks have stopped issuing marriage licenses to nonresident gay couples, unless they plan to move to Massachusetts. After the 2006 decision, Rhode Island gay couples could also obtain marriage licenses in Massachusetts. The legal advocacy group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders is pushing for the courts to recognize the marriages of certain New York couples who wed here. The New York Supreme Court ruled in July 2006 that marriage is between a man and a woman, but GLAD lawyers are hoping to persuade a judge to validate the marriages of New Yorkers who married here before the July 2006 ruling.
Michele Granda, staff attorney for GLAD, said that Romney should have recorded the marriages of all couples who were issued marriage licenses by local authorities. She accused Romney of ignoring the state's licensing law for political gain.
"The state has a duty to bind and index the records of marriage," said Granda. "He had no authority to withhold the licenses. He wanted to give people across the country the impression the licenses were worthless. We applaud the Patrick administration for correcting an antigay licensing scheme put in place by Governor Romney."