Gay Marriage Debate Shifts to Nonresidents

The governor demanded copies of all marriage applications issued by the four municipalities that openly defied his policy on same-sex licenses, and an official said Wednesday that the governor is thinking of seeking court action.

City and town clerks in Provincetown (search), Worcester, Springfield and Somerville were ordered to hand over the documents Tuesday, a day after each issued marriage licenses to out-of-state residents.

Gov. Mitt Romney (search), a Republican opposed to same-sex marriage (search), had instructed Massachusetts town clerks to deny marriage licenses to all nonresident couples who have no plans to move to Massachusetts.

Officials in the four towns said they were complying with the administration's request. By late morning Wednesday, Provincetown had already submitted them to the Registry of Vital Statistics and officials in the other three were preparing the paperwork.

"I just don't know how we're supposed to provide public service and also then operate according to Governor Romney's take on the law," said Worcester clerk David Rushford, who issued applications to 12 out-of-state couples.

"This is an unprecedented request in my 25 years of service," Rushford said. "But I'm confident that I'm acting within the law."

An administration official speaking on condition of anonymity said Romney was considering asking a court for an injunction that would bar the clerks from continuing to issue licenses to out-of-state gay couples. It was not immediately clear how such an order would impact the licenses already issued to nonresidents.

Romney has previously said he would declare the out-of-state licenses null and void. The Republican governor has made no public comments since legal gay marriages began.

Romney spokesman Shawn Feddeman said Wednesday that no decision had been made on how to handle cities and towns that defy the governor.

"We are in the process of collecting information and no decisions have been made yet on how to deal with clerks who have violated the law," she said.

The governor wants clerks to adhere to a 1913 state law that prohibits nonresidents from getting married in Massachusetts if their union would not be legal in their home state.

Since no other state recognizes gay marriages, Romney said, out-of-state gay couples who have no intention of moving to Massachusetts could not obtain marriage licenses.

But clerks in Provincetown, Worcester, Springfield and Somerville said publicly that they would issue licenses to all comers, regardless of where they lived, as long as they signed a form attesting that there was no known legal impediment to their union.

"They've singled out only the select few that announced a policy contrary to the governor's interpretation," Provincetown Town Manager Keith Bergman said.

Many of the nonresident couples who came to get their marriage documents returned home Tuesday to inevitable legal battles in their own states. Those who have no intention of moving here face the possibility that their state governments will refuse to recognize their unions, and Massachusetts itself could nullify their license, as Romney has promised.

Gay rights advocates in neighboring New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island — home to many of the gay couples who married in Massachusetts on Monday — said they hope legal action is not necessary, but acknowledged it may be inevitable.

"It's America in 2004. I think legal action is guaranteed," said Kevin Cathcart, executive director of the gay-rights group Lambda Legal. "It's going to take the legal system and the political system quite some time to work this all out."