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Massachusetts gay rights advocates fight against 1913 law

After defeating an effort of letting voters decide whether to ban same-sex marriage in the only state that allows it, Massachusetts gay rights advocates have one more fight: Repealing a 1913 law that bars same-sex couples from most states from marrying there.

The law says that couple cannot marry in Massachusetts unless their unions are legal in their home state. It is believed to have its roots in past efforts to block interracial marriage.

Opponents of gay marriage, including former Massachusetts governor and current Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have said repealing the law would make Massachusetts the "Las Vegas of gay marriage."

"This radical social experiment will be exported to the other 49 states," Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said Friday, a day after lawmakers killed an effort to let voters decide on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

The vote of the joint legislative session Thursday stopped the move to reverse a historic court ruling that made Massachusetts the only state where gay couples can legally marry. A handful of states allow civil unions or similar arrangements.

Now attention turns to the state's 1913 law, which, if repealed, would mean gay couples from other states could legally marry in Massachusetts.

What legal weight those out-of-state marriages would carry once the couples returned home is an open question. Most states prohibit gay marriage, but a Massachusetts certificate could provide couples with the foundation for legal challenges. A court challenge was the basis of Massachusetts legalizing same-sex marriage, after gay couples were denied marriage licenses.

Opponents of the 1913 law say it was originally approved as part of a deal with states that barred interracial marriages and did not want couples fleeing to Massachusetts to marry. Supporters of the law say there is little evidence to support that claim.

After gay marriage became legal in May 2004, hundreds of couples from other states traveled to Massachusetts to wed. Then-Gov. Romney directed municipal clerks not to give licenses to out-of-state couples, citing the 1913 law.

So far, only Rhode Island allows its gay couples to wed in Massachusetts, after a Rhode Island judge ruled last September that the state's laws do not explicitly ban same-sex marriages. A handful of marriages of gay couples from New York who wed in Massachusetts before July 2006 have been deemed valid, as well, because New York had not explicitly banned same-sex marriages until then.

Gay marriage advocates already tried to strike down the law through the courts, but failed. The Supreme Judicial Court, which legalized gay marriage, upheld the 1913 law last year, ruling that Massachusetts "has a significant interest in not meddling in matters in which another state, the one where a couple actually resides, has a paramount interest."

Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said "no one is rushing" to push for the repeal but she is confident it will eventually happen.

"In the short term, we want everyone to rest, breathe and appreciate the incredible victory that took place," she said.

The state's top three political leaders - Gov. Deval Patrick, House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray - are all strong supporters of gay marriage who lobbied vigorously for the amendment to fail and have indicted they would support repeal of the law.

With that kind of support, even Mineau said "it's just a matter of time" before the 1913 law is repealed.

David Guarino, a spokesman for DiMasi said Friday: "As a strong supporter of gay marriage rights, the Speaker believes the so-called 1913 law is outdated and unfair. He believes it should be repealed."

Murray did not immediately comment Friday on what priority will be given to bills filed to repeal the 1913 law. Patrick's office declined to comment Friday, but the governor in April said: "I know that the 1913 law has sort of smelly origins. I think it's outdated. If it passes the Legislature and comes to my desk, I'll sign it."

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