City and town clerks will not have to demand documentary proof of residency from gay couples who wish to marry in Massachusetts under new state guidelines that appear more lenient than originally proposed.
Gov. Mitt Romney, who opposes gay marriage, had originally said clerks would be required to seek documents proving that same-sex couples applying for marriage licenses live in Massachusetts before such licenses would be granted, a process that will begin May 17, as mandated by the state's highest court. Romney's top legal adviser told clerks Tuesday, however, that couple's sworn oath as to their residency and the truth of the information they provide on their marriage license will now suffice.
Attorney Daniel Winslow warned city and town clerks, however, that marriage licenses issued to out-of-state gay couples would be null and void and could result in legal repercussions for the clerks who issued the licenses, though he did not specify what those repercussions would be. The consequences of an illegal marriage could be severe for the couple, particularly if they have children, because of legal questions of support and custody, Winslow said. "What conscientious clerk ever would issue a license in violation of Massachusetts law when the consequences and ramifications to children and innocent parties would be so great?" Winslow said in an interview with the Associated Press. "I simply can't see that any clerk would do that."
A 1913 Massachusetts law bars out-of-state couples from marrying in the state if their marriage would be illegal in the state where they reside. After months of legal wrangling over the supreme judicial court's ruling legalizing gay marriage in Massachusetts, state and local officials are getting into the nitty-gritty of how to put this first-in-the-nation law into practice.
The state's 351 city and town clerks will be on the front lines, dispensing the new licenses, which make no distinction between gay and straight couples. Several clerks have taken steps to have more workers on hand on the first day to process the expected influx of couples, while Cambridge has announced plans to open the doors of City Hall just after midnight to issue the state's first licenses. Before the first licenses are issued, Cambridge officials will have a celebration, including a wedding cake.
In Boston, the state's largest city, about 20 city workers wearing "Welcome" badges will be on duty at City Hall to answer questions. The city is printing about 3,000 color brochures, including a letter of congratulations from Mayor Thomas Menino. In Northampton and Provincetown, towns with large gay populations, clerks will not be holding special hours but plan to expand operations during the day to handle the high volume.
On Tuesday the state held the first of five training session for clerks. At the closed-door session in Barnstable, 70 clerks saw the state's new intention-to-marry forms, which have been altered to remove gender references and now include a place to show what proof of residence was provided. Clerks said they were satisfied with the level of detail they received from the governor's office on how to implement the new law and also relieved they won't have to ask for documentary proof of residency.
Several clerks, including those in Provincetown, Worcester, Northampton, and Lowell, have resisted Romney's previous edict that they ask for proof of residency from gay couples. In the past, the only thing couples have had to do is sign an oath, under penalty of perjury, that there is no impediment to their marriage. While that sworn oath will still be legally acceptable, Winslow said Tuesday, the state Department of Public Health plans to advise clerks that written proof is the best documentation.
Clerks and gay rights advocates welcomed the news that the sworn oath would continue to suffice, even if that is not Romney's preferred choice. "This has been a practice that up until now has not been widely followed," Winslow said. "But Massachusetts marriage laws have never been so broad compared to the rest of the nation before."
Winslow instructed clerks to be consistent--to request proof of residency of all couples, not just gay couples. Only out-of-state gay couples, however, could be subsequently barred from marriage, due to the 1913 law. Attorney Mary Bonauto, who represented seven same-sex couples in the landmark case that led to the supreme judicial court's ruling legalizing gay marriage, predicted a legal challenge of the residency requirements but said that the state's instruction to clerks appeared to be a concession to their concerns about becoming "marriage police.... It's important that they have acknowledged that even though the governor's office wants documentary proof of residence, they're going to give clerks leeway to do what clerks have always done, which is accept the oaths."