Uncertainty in Mass. fails to deter Md. pair

Marriage: Despite the governor's opposition to nuptials by out-of-state same-sex couples, two Maryland men plan to make the trip.

May 20, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

On Saturday afternoon, Marc Epstein and James Reeves of Baltimore have an appointment to wed before a justice of the peace in her backyard gazebo in Massachusetts, joining hundreds of same-sex couples who have sought marriage licenses there this week.

The only potential obstacle: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is considering seeking a court injunction to prevent clerks from issuing licenses to out-of-state couples such as Reeves and Epstein.

"That is certainly one option," Romney spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman said yesterday.

Epstein and Reeves, who share a house in Mount Vernon, say they are seeking a license so they can press for some of the legal benefits of marriage when they return to Maryland, including spousal health care coverage and the ability to file joint tax returns.

Maryland does not recognize same-sex marriages, and gay rights advocates say fighting for recognition through a right-by-right approach might not be the most effective legal strategy.

Despite the uncertainty in Massachusetts and here, Epstein and Reeves say they want to make a point and have no plans to call off the wedding. "No matter what Romney decides, we will go up there and ask for a marriage license," said Reeves, 26, who works at a Washington-based think tank.

On Monday, more than 600 same-sex couples - mostly state residents - applied to wed in Massachusetts as it became the first state in the nation to permit gay marriage. Since then, attention has shifted to the battle over out-of-state residents and the potential legal ramifications when they return home with marriage licenses from Massachusetts.

Romney had ordered clerks not to issue licenses to out-of-state couples, citing a little-used 1913 law which prohibits nonresidents from marrying there if their union would not be legal in their home state. On Monday, however, four municipalities - Worcester, Provincetown, Springfield and Somerville - defied the Republican governor and accepted more than 70 applications from out-of-state couples.

Romney, who said he views such licenses as "null and void," has threatened legal action against the dissident clerks. He has also ordered them to send copies of marriage license applications to his office, but has not said what he might do with them.

"We'll make our decision once we've collected all the pertinent information," Feddeman said.

Gay rights advocates say they are confident couples from out-of-state will eventually prevail in Massachusetts. However, they say that because of the uncertainty and Romney's position, Massachusetts' licenses are probably not the most effective way right now to press the case for gay marriage in other states.

"Because Governor Romney is causing so many questions to be raised, for the time being, there is a cloud hanging over out-of-state couples," said Ken Choe, a staff attorney with the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Maryland officials have repeatedly said that they would not recognize same-sex marriages from Massachusetts or anywhere else. If a gay couple sued to have their marriage recognized here, "The State would defend [against] such a suit on the ground that section 2-201 of the Family Law Article reflects State policy prohibiting the recognition in Maryland of a same sex marriage," Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch wrote in February.

Reeves and Epstein, who have been together for 4 1/2 years, said they want to use a Massachusetts marriage license to seek specific benefits in Maryland. For instance, they said, when they sought car insurance for a 2002 Mazda Protege a year and a half ago, an agent told them they could have paid $600 less if they had been married.

Epstein, 25, who receives health insurance through his job as a community planner with Baltimore County, will begin nursing school this month at the Johns Hopkins University and wants to be covered as a spouse on the insurance policy provided by Reeves' employer. Otherwise, he will have to buy coverage through Hopkins for $170 a month, he said.

Choe noted that today many corporations provide benefits for domestic partners. For those that don't, Choe said, a couple with a Massachusetts marriage license could sue them in state court.

But Choe, who follows Maryland law closely, said such a piece-meal strategy against private entities would probably not be the most effective approach. Instead, he said, the more effective route is to file suit to marry using the state constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

"The most logical way to ensure marriage equality on all levels is to ensure recognition from the state," said Choe, who grew up in Columbia.

Cases elsewhere

That is the strategy that has proved so successful in Massachusetts and is now being pursued in California, New Jersey, New York and Washington state as the legal front on gay marriage broadens nationally.

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