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Repeal would let out-of-state gays marry in Mass.

STEVE LEBLANC

When Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in 2004, it left one big roadblock in place: Out-of-state couple needed not apply.

The state Senate on Tuesday tried to remove that roadblock, voting to repeal a 1913 state law that has banned most out-of-state gay couples from getting married. The law says couples cannot be married in Massachusetts if their unions would be illegal in their home states.

The bill passed a voice vote with no objections from state senators. Their counterparts in the state House are expected to vote later this week. Like Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi has expressed support for the repeal.

Opponents of gay marriage fear eliminating the law would open the gay marriage floodgates.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney, who invoked the nearly forgotten law after gay marriage went into effect in 2004, once warned repealing the law would make Massachusetts the “Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

But California’s embrace of same-sex marriage has breathed new life into the repeal drive. California has no residency requirement for marriage.

Marc Solomon, executive director of MassEquality, said he’s confident the repeal bill will reach Patrick’s desk before the end of the formal session July 31.

“There’s strong support in the Legislature for eliminating this last vestige of state discrimination in the marriage laws against same sex couples,” Solomon said.

Solomon also said there’s no reason why Massachusetts shouldn’t reap the economic benefits that would flow from an influx of gay couples marrying here.

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes same sex marriage, said the law is in sync with federal constitutional protections guaranteeing individual states the right to define marriage.

“It is an issue of one state honoring the rights of other states,” he said, but conceded the California ruling was a setback. “The green light has been given to try to export this radical social experiment from coast to coast.”

Patrick, the state’s first black governor who last year helped quash a proposed ballot question that would have reinstated the ban on gay marriage, said the law has “outlived its usefulness.”

“It seems to have derived at a time when lawful discrimination based on race was at large here in the Commonwealth and elsewhere,” he said.

The law was approved at a time when many states barred interracial marriages, although supporters say there’s no evidence it was racially motivated in Massachusetts, which began allowing interracial marriages in 1843.

There’s no record of the legislative debate on the bill, which raced through the Legislature in three weeks and was quickly signed into law. It appeared to come out of an effort to create a more level field out of the country’s patchwork of laws.

But it also came during a time of racial tension, including a scandal over black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson’s marriage to Lucille Cameron, who was white.

The law was rarely enforced until Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2003 that the state could no longer bar gay couples from marrying.

Romney, then eyeing a run for president, ordered city and town clerks to enforce the statute, although some town clerks balked.

Eight gay couples from surrounding states challenged the law in court and in 2006 the same court that allowed gay marriage refused to toss out the 1913 law.

Until the California ruling, gay marriage remained an option available almost exclusively to same-sex couples living in Massachusetts. About 11,000 same sex couples have tied the knot.

Not all out-of-state couples have been barred from marrying in Massachusetts.

In 2006, a Massachusetts judge ruled there was nothing in Rhode Island law banning same sex marriage, even though the Rhode Island Legislature hasn’t legalized gay marriage.

The loophole has allowed nearly a hundred gay couples from Rhode Island to make the short trip across the border to marry.

Despite the introduction of gay marriage in Massachusetts and California, most other states have statutes or constitutional amendments specifying that marriage is between a man and a woman, and denying recognition to same-sex unions.

The federal government also doesn’t recognize such unions.

If Massachusetts lifts its ban and couples from other states rush to get married here, it’s unclear what weight those marriage certificates would carry once they return home.

(Associated Press)