Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples are expected to apply at Massachusetts's town and city halls for marriage licenses Monday, the first day any state has recognized same-sex marriage in US history.
Despite Republican Gov. Mitt Romney's insistence that a 1913 law prohibits gay residents of other states from marrying in Massachusetts, couples from California to New York will be among those exchanging vows - turning the state, overnight, into the de facto gay wedding chapel of a nation.
The move will undoubtedly complicate the politics of and widen the culture war over one of the most divisive - yet personal - issues in American life. As out-of-state couples return home, they will force new clarifications and confrontations over everything from hospital visitation rights to spousal benefits on the job.
Even in Massachusetts - with one of the nation's strongest Catholic as well as gay communities - the debate may deepen as public officials, churches, and families sort through their own personal and institutional responses to the new reality.
"There's an emulation effect that will take place here," says Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at the State University of New York, New Paltz. "What's happening in Massachusetts will overtake and force the agendas of other states."
To Cris Beam and Robin Goldman of New York, Monday won't be about agendas. It will be about obtaining the legal rights that did not come with the commitment ceremony they took part in several years ago.
The past month has been rife with confusion for the couple, however, as advocates on both sides of the debate have argued over the legality of marrying out-of-state couples.
"We were concerned when the news changed every day, but there never was a time where we decided we wouldn't be able to go [to Massachusetts]," says Ms. Goldman.
Governor Romney has argued for compliance with a 1913 state law requiring that all couples marrying in Massachusetts provide proof of current or impending residency.
Some town and city clerks have said they won't follow Romney's request that they ask for documentation. At least three others have said they won't even require applicants to answer the question regarding residency.
It is at one of these jurisdictions where Ms. Beam and Goldman, along with the overwhelming majority of out-of-state applicants, plan to file for a license on Monday.
New York's attorney general has said his state - which has no defense of marriage act (DOMA) prohibiting gay unions - will recognize the Massachusetts licenses.
Attorneys general for Connecticut and Rhode Island, neither of which has a DOMA law, said they would decide Monday how to treat the licenses.
These liberal states with close proximity to Massachusetts are among those where government action affirming gay marriage could come soon.
"The most vocal people - or even governments - in an area pull others toward them," says James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Yet in states like New York, where Republicans hold the governor's mansion as well as a majority in the Senate, a law legalizing gay marriage likely will not be passed any time soon.
In such states, most observers believe the ripple effects from Massachusetts will first be felt at the grass-roots. Goldman, for one, plans to demand that her partner be covered under her healthcare plan. Others will test the granting of power of attorney and hospital visitation rights.
Groups opposed to gay marriage are watching for a spate of lawsuits.
"We've alerted everyone we can think of to tell us about cases that come up," says Jorden Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal-advocacy group in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Darin Moore and Trey Watts, a gay couple in Oklahoma City, do not intend to go to a court house immediately after they return from getting married in Massachusetts next week. But Mr. Watts says he is not afraid of testing his Massachusetts license in court if the need arises.
Watts is currently lobbying against a constitutional referendum vote in Oklahoma banning gay marriage. He adds that if their joint tax return is rejected next spring, "we've got a lawsuit."
About 10 states are likely to vote on similar constitutional amendments this fall. These laws, along with the DOMA laws in 36 states, could prove virtually impossible to overturn.
In addition to Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont, gay advocates point to California and Oregon as states that could recognize gay marriages as a result of the momentum from Massachusetts.
But the increasing number of state laws against gay marriage complicates any quest for universal marriage rights. The timetable might resemble the push for interracial marriage rights, which were first recognized by California in 1948. The US Supreme Court didn't act until 1967.
"The result of this is going to be a patchwork of decisions even within states," says Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, a political advocacy group in New York.
Even for Massachusetts, the future is more gray than crystal clear. By limiting marriage rights to a relatively small group of gay couples nationwide, many of those excluded could opt to take up residency here. Mr. Moore and Watts, for example, plan to leave Oklahoma if the legislative tide turns against them.
Pennsylvania gay-rights advocate Liz Bradbury said she and her partner would consider moving to Massachusetts if they had no other way of obtaining the same legal rights.
"The financial burden [without marriage] is very dangerous," says Ms. Bradbury, who lives in Allentown.
Yet many here who oppose gay marriage strongly believe the state's voters will pass a constitutional referendum in 2006 banning the institution. The state's legislature passed an amendment last month that requires two consecutive majority votes by residents for passage.
Ray McNulty, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Family Institute, believes that the state will hear from Americans across the country angered by images of gay couples marrying and raising children. "The country will wake up to the fact that a small portion of the population has redefined marriage for society in general," says Mr. McNulty. "They don't have that right."