In ruling that same-sex couples from states that do not allow gay marriage cannot marry in Massachusetts, the state's highest court dramatically narrowed the current battleground in the gay-marriage debate to a handful of states.
If the Supreme Judicial Court had struck down a 1913 law barring nonresidents from marrying if the union wouldn't be recognized at home, opponents of gay marriage say it could have created a flood of Massachusetts marriage certificates used to demand rights in the majority of states that explicitly prohibit such unions.
Gov. Mitt Romney (R) warned against his state becoming "the Las Vegas of same-sex marriage."
But advocates on both sides of the battle say that the ruling does not shut the door completely as both sides scramble to sway the debate in their favor, especially in the few states that don't explicitly prohibit gay marriage.
Eight same-sex couples from surrounding states challenged Massachusetts after Governor Romney ordered that the marriage law, nearly a century old, be enforced in May 2004, when town clerks began performing same-sex marriages. They claimed that the law sat untouched for decades and was "dusted off" to target gay marriage.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled last week that Massachusetts "has a significant interest in not meddling in matters in which another state, the one where a couple actually resides, has a paramount interest," wrote Justice Francis Spina in the opinion.
According to the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, 7,341 same-sex couples married in Massachusetts between May 2004 and December 2005. That office does not track how many licenses were granted to out-of-state couples. (Early on, however, town clerks were discouraged from performing same-sex marriages when the couple was from a state that explicitly prohibited such unions.)
The Supreme Judicial Court sent cases involving couples from Rhode Island and New York to a lower court to decide whether gay marriage is prohibited in those states.
Michele Granda, a lawyer for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston, hoped that the decision would open the door for residents of New York and Rhode Island - which don't explicitly ban gay marriage - to wed in Massachusetts. "There could be other states, too," she says. "This new [ruling] makes it clear that the Commonwealth was overreaching."
Opponents of gay marriage say their efforts will now shift to the handful of states that don't explicitly ban gay marriage. In addition to New York and Rhode Island, these include New Jersey and New Mexico.
"We are happy for [the majority of states] that are clearly not threatened by this ruling, but are concerned about the remaining [ones]," says Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.
Both sides of the gay-marriage debate are closely watching the state Supreme Court in Washington, which is considering lower-court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage. Washington does not have a state law that prohibits marriages of nonresidents.
While Massachusetts officials emphasized last week's ruling would have no impact on state residents, some experts say the most important element to emerge is a compromise position that emphasizes that, in respecting other state laws, states should also respect Massachusetts' laws.
If same-sex married couples from Massachusetts travel out of state, for example, the ruling provides a clear message that "they get to take [their marriages] with them wherever they go," says Andrew Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago.