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Cambridge will have to wait for the Massachusetts legislature to act on last week’s state court decision allowing same-sex marriages, despite an earlier proposal by two city councillors to begin issuing licenses to gay couples immediately.
But in a unanimous affirmation of the court’s ruling, the City Council passed an order at last night’s meeting calling on the city clerk to be ready to give out the licenses to same sex couples “as soon as legally possible.”
“This is an exciting time and I want to move forward as quickly as we can,” said Councillor Brian P. Murphy ’86-’87.
The council’s vote came after a landmark ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) last Tuesday that affirmed the right of same sex couples to be afforded the benefits married heterosexual couples are awarded. The court stayed the decision for 180 days to give the legislature time to align its laws with the ruling.
The day after last week’s decision was announced, Councillors Murphy and E. Denise Simmons said they would propose a resolution instructing the city to issue licenses before the end of the stay period.
But Murphy said that after conferring with lawyers—including some from the New England gay rights group that brought the case before the SJC—the councillors decided that passing such a resolution might prompt legal opposition from Gov. W. Mitt Romney and delay the licenses for longer than the 180-day period.
“It made sense not to risk a tactical setback,” Murphy said after the meeting. “It was more logistics than anything else.”
David Barron, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School, said yesterday that any Cambridge decision to issue licenses before the state legislature took action was likely to be overturned.
“Under the state constitution the city probably lacks the legal authority at the present time, in my view, to issue a license,” he said.
City Solicitor Donald A. Drisdell told the council last night that the amended language would not present a legal problem.
Cambridge’s eagerness to take advantage of the court ruling would have defied an order from the state public health department prohibiting cities from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples until after the six-month stay period. Romney told the Associated Press last week that any licenses issued during this time would be considered invalid.
Several local TV stations—and even a reporter from Florida’s St. Petersburg Times—covered the meeting in City Hall last night.
Simmons, an openly gay councillor who intends to seek her own marriage license once it is legal, said she was disappointed that gay couples would have to wait six months to obtain a legal union.
“When you’re in a community that has been denied their rights and privileges for such a long time, then you will understand our impatience,” she said. “Whether the state wants to give us licenses or not, I think Cambridge should do it anyway.”
But she added later in the meeting that she was in favor of the amended resolution because it would carry more weight if it had the full support of the council.
“We stood collectively, so we sent a stronger voice than had the vote been split,” she said after the meeting.
Cambridge residents turned out to support the council’s action, and greeted the vote with applause.
“It’s the first legislative body to affirm the SJC decision, and that is really wonderful,” said resident Robin Shore.
Jennifer Hess displayed her city-issued domestic partnership card and said she hoped Cambridge would be among the first cities to extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples.
“I hope one day soon I can turn in my second-class citizen card and get a real certificate,” she said.
Several residents also urged the council to restore health care and other benefits to domestic partners of city employees. Those benefits were struck down by a court challenge in November 2001.
Shore, an employee of the city’s Community Development Department whose partner of 21 years is not currently eligible for benefits, said she hoped the council would “rectify the situation in the spirit of the SJC ruling.”
Councillors said last night they hoped to take action on this issue soon, and they passed a unanimous order asking the City Manager to report back on the feasibility of extending the benefits in light of the new ruling.
“To deny people equal benefits for equal work is unacceptable,” said Councillor Marjorie C. Decker.
The council also passed a related order urging the state legislature to take legal action as soon as possible to put the court’s decision into effect.
Councillor Anthony D. Galluccio said that he is “more comfortable” with allowing civil unions rather than marriages for gay couples, but is willing to support the court’s extension of the legal definition of marriage.
Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves ’72 said civil unions, even with the legal benefits that accompany marriage, would not be an acceptable compromise.
“Marriage is the only goal,” he said.
He added that he was glad he and his partner of 33 years might now be granted the same status as any other couple.
“To learn at [the age of] 52 that you’re really going to be a real person is extraordinary,” he said.
—Contributing writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Jessica R. Rubin-Wills can be reached at email@example.com.
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