CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) – Hundreds of gays and lesbians are celebrating as they wait to apply for something many of them never thought possible — the right to legally marry in the United States.
Same-sex couples were set to exchange vows on Monday when Massachusetts becomes the first U.S. state to allow gay marriage, an election-year milestone likely to fuel legal and political battles nationwide.
Ahead of a midnight deadline, hundreds of couples lined up on the steps of City Hall on Sunday in the famously liberal community of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to get their first chance at untying the final strands of red tape separating them from the legal rights of marriage.
“We wanted to be part of history,” said Lesley Chiller of Malden, Massachusetts, who waited in line with her partner, Janet Putnam. “Years from now, I want to say I was there.”
Passing cars honked their horns and a throng of onlookers choked the sidewalks outside the 19th-century stone building. Across the street, a small band of anti-gay demonstrators held signs like “God Hates Fags.”
“If they’re going to allow this, then why not incest? Why not have people marry animals? Why not polygamy?” asked protester Ben Phelps of Topeka, Kansas.
Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples are expected to seek marriage licenses as of Monday from city and town clerks in Massachusetts, followed by the customary ringing of church bells and the cutting of wedding cakes — many topped with the figures of two brides or two grooms.
Thousands of same-sex couples were married at San Francisco City Hall earlier this year, but the marriages were not recognised by the state of California. A mayor in New York state is being prosecuted after performing gay marriages in February.
MASSACHUSETTS IN SPOTLIGHT
The issue has catapulted Massachusetts into the national spotlight, especially in an election year when its junior senator, Democrat John Kerry, is expected to face Republican President George W. Bush in the race for the White House.
Both candidates oppose gay marriage, with Bush backing a constitutional ban and Kerry favouring limited legal recognition for same-sex couples.
Conservatives have blasted Massachusetts’ top court, which ruled last year that a state ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional and allowed same-sex couples to wed legally.
The final hurdle was cleared on Friday when the U.S. Supreme Court failed to block a last-minute legal challenge filed by conservative opponents of same-sex weddings.
A federal appeals court has agreed to hear the case next month, but by that time clerks will probably have granted hundreds of marriage licenses to homosexual couples.
Some may be given to out-of-state gay couples who come to Massachusetts in defiance of Republican Governor Mitt Romney, who has told them to stay home amid fears his state could become “the Las Vegas of same-sex marriage.”
Citing a 1913 state law that prevents Massachusetts from marrying any couple if the marriage would be “void” in their home states, Romney’s administration has warned clerks they can issue licenses to out-of-state couples only if they plan on settling in Massachusetts.
Several clerks, noting the statute has not been strictly applied to heterosexual couples, plan on issuing licenses to all gay couples who request them. Gay rights advocates plan to challenge the law, and at least two district attorneys will not prosecute clerks who break the statute, The Boston Sunday Globe reported.
It is expected some couples will take their marriage licenses back to states where they may not be not recognised, setting up legal test cases that courts around America will have to resolve.