Albany, Not Boston, Focus Here

Mass. marriage may still be open to New Yorkers, but high court key

Massachusetts’ Republican governor, Mitt Romney was pleased that his state will not become “the Las Vegas of same-sex marriages” when its Supreme Judicial Court upheld a law barring most out-of-state couples from tying the knot there if their marriages would not be recognized in their home states.

While the plaintiffs from New York or Rhode Island may prevail if they pursue remanded cases in the Bay State—since their own states do not explicitly bar same-sex marriage—advocates are more focused on suits and legislation to win the right to marry at home. What’s more, if the imminent high court decisions in Washington State and New Jersey open marriage to gay couples, American same-sex partners can go there to marry. In the meantime, they can legally marry in Canada.

New York is another place gay couples from elsewhere could marry if gay advocates are successful before the Court of Appeals in arguments on May 31 in Albany. Lambda Legal is appealing the 4-1 decision of the Appellate Division’s First Department, which agreed with Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg that Justice Doris Ling-Cohan of Manhattan was wrong in February 2005 to order New York City to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“The Court of Appeals is the ultimate guardian of constitutional rights in New York,” said Susan Sommer, senior counsel at Lambda, who will argue the appeal. “For these families, it is a matter of simple fairness.”

If New York’s high court rules against the right of gay couples to marry, the door would be closed to them in Massachusetts as well under last week’s ruling, which is why the Albany ruling is ultimately more meaningful than Boston’s.

Rhode Island’s House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Wednesday on a bill to open marriage to gay couples explicitly. The state has no law banning it.

The Vermont plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case, Sandi and Bobbi Cote-Whitacre, now want full marriage rights from their own state, the first to establish civil unions in 2000. A bill to grant gay couples marriage rights there is not seen as going anywhere this year.

Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders represented the plaintiff couples in the Massachusetts case. Kevin Batt, a cooperating attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts who represented the town clerks wishing to marry gay couples, said that the ruling “is disappointing and it sets up an impossible task for the state. In order to pretend the government isn’t discriminating against same-sex couple, Massachusetts will have to closely scrutinize other states’ marriage laws, which our officials aren’t in a position to do.”

The ACLU hopes that the Legislature will repeal the 1913 law, first enacted to honor the miscegenation laws elsewhere in the country and upheld by the court, but Marc Solomon of MassEquality said his group’s focus is on defeating a state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. It needs 50 of 200 votes from two successive sessions of the Legislature to qualify for the 2008 ballot.

The right-wing Focus on the Family commended the Massachusetts court—the same one it condemned for opening marriage to gay couples in 2004—and noted that 44 states now have Defense of Marriage Acts or constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage.

Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly, the Democrat who argued the state’s case, may have hurt his standing with gay voters in his bid for governor. His leading opponent for the Democratic nomination, Deval Patrick, said he was “disappointed” with the decision.