Md. gay couple marry in face of legal issues

Mass. wedding not likely to get official recognition

May 23, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

WORCESTER, Mass. - A day after Massachusetts' top law officer declared all marriages for out-of-state same-sex couples invalid and demanded that clerks stop approving them, Baltimore's James Reeves and Marc Epstein wed in a quiet, but defiant, ceremony here conducted by a justice of the peace.

Standing in a gazebo beneath rain-swollen skies, Reeves and Epstein exchanged their vows yesterday before a handful of family members as Lisa Thomas, who is also an assistant city clerk, pronounced them "married for life."

"My new grandson!" Selma Friedman, Epstein's 81-year-old grandmother and the ceremony's ring bearer, announced as she let go of her walker and hugged a tearful Reeves afterward.

"I remember when James told me he was gay; the first thing I thought was he will never get married and he'll never have kids," said his sister, Kary Lewis. "Pretty cool."

Although the marriage marks a personal milestone for Reeves and Epstein, neither Massachusetts, Maryland nor any other state is likely to recognize it as legal - at least not yet. That didn't seem to bother the couple, who predicted that they would eventually prevail in their drive to have their marriage recognized beyond this city, a 45-minute drive west of Boston.

"We always knew there was going to be a cloud of suspicion over this, but we felt if we didn't try, we would have regretted it for the rest of our lives," said Reeves, 26, who works for a Washington-based think tank.

The ceremony capped a hectic week for the pair as they rushed to get their marriage application approved here before state officials shut the door to out-of-state couples.

On Monday, hundreds thronged to courthouses across Massachusetts as it became the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In doing so, Massachusetts joined just a few jurisdictions around the world - the Netherlands, Belgium and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec - in allowing gay marriage.

However, to prevent the "export" of same-sex marriage to other states, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told clerks not to issue licenses to couples from out of state. The majority complied, but those in a handful of jurisdictions - including Somerville, Springfield, Provincetown and Worcester - did not.

Romney, a Republican, cited a little-used 1913 law that says a marriage is invalid in Massachusetts if it would be illegal in a couple's home state. Because gay marriage is not recognized anywhere else in the United States, Romney argued that licenses for out-of-state couples are "null and void." The decision could affect more than 70 marriage license applications from out-of-state couples.

On Friday, state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, a Democrat, agreed with Romney and faxed letters to the rebel clerks, demanding that they stop issuing licenses. If they continue to defy his order, Reilly could seek a court injunction.

Either way, the 1913 law - the original purpose of which is a matter of debate - is almost certain to face a challenge in court.

Defiant clerk

Worcester's clerk, David Rushford, who supports gay marriage, remained defiant yesterday and told Thomas, the justice of the peace, to go ahead and marry the couple. The clerk's office had approved their marriage license Friday.

Thomas, who cried toward the end of the ceremony, held on the back deck of her home, said she wanted to marry Epstein and Reeves out of fairness. Same-sex couples, whether from out of state or Massachusetts, have the same right to marry as heterosexual couples, she said.

"I hope history is made in Maryland when you go home," Thomas told the couple after the ceremony. "If Massachusetts can do it, so can other states."

In pursuing marriage here, Reeves and Epstein thrust themselves into one of the nation's most contentious social issues - one that raises difficult questions about family, faith, law and politics. It may also figure in this year's presidential race.

President Bush has called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, also opposes gay marriage but supports civil unions that provide the same legal benefits of matrimony without the title.

Limited opportunity

Epstein and Reeves came up with their plan to marry in Massachusetts in the past couple of weeks. They have been planning a religious commitment ceremony with a Reform Jewish rabbi in March at the Belvedere in Baltimore. But as the date for issuing licenses in Massachusetts approached, they decided to pursue a legal ceremony here to seize what they rightly thought would be a limited opportunity.

In an interview last week, Reeves and Epstein said they wanted a marriage certificate so they could return home and press for specific legal rights, such as spousal health care coverage or filing joint tax returns. Gay legal activists, however, say the couple will have a tough time using the certificate for that purpose in court because it is not even recognized by the state in which it was issued.

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