Provincetown, MA, where, starting on 17 May 2004, the town council will issue same-sex marriage licenses

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This archived article was published in February 2004, with later updates
Massachusetts seaside resort goes ahead
with issuing same-sex marriage licenses

Massachusetts seaside resort Provincetown goes ahead with issuing marriage licenses to gay couples after the US Supreme Court in Washington DC refused requests by the Republican State Governor Mitt Romney and other opponents of same-sex marriages to ban the town clerk from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

Latest news (August 2004): California's Supreme court declares same-sex marriages void but Mayor Newsom vows to fight on.

Back in November 2003, Massachusetts’ highest court rules that the state constitution allowed gay couples to marry, and declared that the process could begin Monday, 17 May 2004. Gay marriage opponents challenged that ruling in the federal courts and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

While gay couples celebrated the Supreme Court decision, opponents to same-sex marriages expressed their dismay when they heard the news from Washington. They warned that gay marriages could have negative effects on families.

Still unclear is whether out-of-state gay couples will be able to marry legally in Massachusetts. Governor Romney thinks not and bases his opinion on a 1913 law which states that couples cannot be married in Massachusetts if such a marriage would be void in the state in which the couple lives. And no other US state currently recognises same-sex marriages.

So far the Provincetown town council maintains gay couples who live outside Massachusetts and have no intention of moving here will still be issued marriage licenses, as long as they attest that they know of no legal impediment to their union.

Mary Bonauto, an US lawyer who reperesents many gay couples, has been quoted to argue that Mitt Romney's interpretation of state law should bar marriage to gay couples only from those states that have laws on their books that declare gay marriages ‘null and void.’ She estimates that only about 20 states had that type of law.

Looking ahead, conservative state legislators are trying to introduce a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages in Massachusetts.

San Francisco Mayor becomes hero of equal
rights movement after allowing gay marriages

Nobody, not his supporters nor his opponents, would have thought that San Francisco's newly elected Mayor Gavin Newsom would become the hero of equal and gay rights movements across the US, and indeed the world, within weeks of taking office on 8 January 2004.

It began innocuously enough when the Mayor accepted an invitation by Representative Nancy Pelosi to attend US President George W Bush's 2004 State of the Union Address on 20 January 2004. While state legislators in Massachusetts pondered whether to amend the state's constitution following a state court decision to authorise same-sex marriages, President Bush emphasised his belief that marriage was between a man and a woman. The President called for "a defence of the sanctity of marriage against activist judges who were attempting to redefine marriage by court order without listening to the voices of the people or their elected representatives."

Mayor Newsom was shaken by what he heard: "I was there saying to myself this was not the world that I grew up aspiring to live in." He added that he found some of the words used in the President's Address quite divisive.

Upon his return to San Francisco, Mayor Newsom studied the court decisions that allowed gay marriages in Massachusetts, as well as the 2003 US Supreme Court's ruling on sodomy. These precedents convinced him that he had an obligation to allow same-sex marriages in his city. Not many US city mayors have the power to issue marriage licences, but San Francisco, unlike many other cities, is both a city and a county; and in California, marriage licences are issued by the counties.

On 10 February 2004, Gavin Newsom wrote to Nancy Alfaro, San Francisco County Clerk, asking her to make the necessary changes to marriage forms and documents in order to provide marriage licences on a non-discriminatory basis, without regard to gender or sexual orientation.

In his letter the San Francisco Mayor argued that the Californian constitution stated that "a person may not be denied equal protection of the laws." The Mayor also pointed out that California courts had interpreted the equal protection clause to apply to lesbians and gay men, and that laws that treated homosexuals differently from heterosexuals were suspect.

Although Gavin Newsom has been on record for some time to favour gay marriages, the topic was not a major issue in the closely-fought mayoral election, which Mr Newsom won by 53 per cent to 47 per cent against the Green party candidate Matt Gonzales. During the election campaign, Gavin Newsom was seen as the more conservative of the two candidates. Indeed, he had the support of the city's business community based on his endeavours to solve San Francisco's homeless problem during his time as county supervisor.

The Mayor's decision to go ahead with the issuing of marriage licences to gay and lesbian couples was attacked by religious and conservative groups as unconstitutional and immoral. California's recently elected Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger allegedly called the Mayor's action "an imminent threat to civil order", and demanded that the State Attorney General take steps to stop San Francisco issuing gay marriage licences. The Attorney General, who, like Mayor Newsom, is a Democrat, is said to have come out against gay marriages.

Even some of Mayor Newsom's own team favoured a more cautious approach, suggesting it should be left up to the courts to decide on the issue. Apparently, they feared negative political fallout. However, the Mayor said he had no patience for a long court battle.

"It was an easy argument, I imagine, between 1948 and 1967, when we all waited around for the courts of this country to recognize interracial marriages," Mr. Newsom said. "There are certain principles in life that transcend patience, and one of them to me is the obligation not to discriminate against people," he added.

Before the US Supreme Court decision to legalise interracial marriages, interracial couples, like same-sex couples today, were vilified, persecuted and forbidden to marry. Interracial marriages were a felony punishable by up to five years in prison in 16, mostly southern, US states.

On Thursday 12 February 2004, the first San Francisco marriage licence to a same-sex couple was issued and, on the following day, the Mayor officiated at two same-sex weddings involving people from his office.

After the marriage ceremony, Mayor Newsom said that America had struggled since its inception to eradicate discrimination in all forms. "California's Constitution leaves no doubts; it leaves no room for any form of discrimination. Today a barrier to true justice has been removed. A barrier removed for one person is a barrier removed for us all."

In reply to President Bush's hint that the US Constitution may need to be amended to allow marriage only between a man and a woman, Gavin Newsom responded by saying: "Stated simply, my actions are consistent with California's Constitution, the highest law of our state. There is no ambiguity in our Constitution when it comes to discrimination. It is prohibited.

“The oath I took last month directs me to uphold the California Constitution. I am proud to honour my oath of office, defend the state's Constitution and reject injustice in our city."

Ten days after Mayor Newsom first decided to give the go-ahead to gay marriages, more than 3,200 same-sex weddings had taken place in San Francisco. Attempts by the 'Campaign for California Families' to have temporary restraining orders issued because 'same-sex weddings would cause irreparable damage' were denied by two judges. Governor Schwarzenegger's legal challenges against gay marriages still await a court decision. San Francisco received some support from other US cities. In New Mexico, a county granted marriage licences to 35 same-sex couples, and in Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said he would not object to Cook County issuing marriage licences to gay couples.

On Tuesday 24 February 2004, US President George W Bush backed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a move he said was needed to stop judges from changing the definition of the "most enduring human institution."

The President went on to say that after more than two centuries of American jurisprudence and millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities were presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization. "Their action has created confusion on an issue that requires clarity," the President added.

But the President's call to amend the US Constitution found little support outside conservative religious groups.

Democrats accused the President of using the Constitution for electioneering purposes. US Senator John Kerry, who hopes to run against the President in November's election, said: "I believe President Bush is wrong."

He added that all Americans should be concerned when a president who is in political trouble tries to tamper with the Constitution of the United States at the start of his re-election campaign. Senator Kerry, who opposes gay marriage but favours gay civil unions, will oppose the amendment if it reaches the Senate floor.

The House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay, himself a Republican like the President, expressed caution. Commenting on the President's call for an amendment he said: "This is so important we're not going to take a knee-jerk reaction to this. We are going to look at our options and we are going to be deliberative about what solutions we may suggest," he added.

On 27 February 2004, in yet another setback for those opposed to same-sex marriage, the California Supreme Court declined a request to immediately stop San Francisco from marrying gay couples and to nullify the weddings already performed.

California’s Attorney General Bill Lockyer asked the Court to intervene in the debate while they consider the legality of the marriages. More than 3,400 couples have tied the knot since San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses two weeks ago under the directive of Mayor Gavin Newsom. Bill Lockyer said it was a matter for the courts, not the mayor, to decide. He did not take a position on whether same-sex marriages should be deemed constitutional. But the Court declined the request, and told the city and a conservative group that opposes gay marriages to file new legal briefs by 5 March 2004.

In the meantime, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer refused a request for an injunction against gay weddings performed in the village of New Paltz, NY, noting that such a measure should be a last resort. He did not issue an opinion on whether the marriages were legal. Twenty-five gay couples exchanged wedding vows Friday on the steps of the New Paltz village hall.

6 March 2004: New Paltz Mayor Jason West said he would abide by a ruling that temporarily barred him from performing more same-sex marriages, but was considering his legal options. The ruling was one of many developments nationwide on the gay marriage issue Friday. In San Francisco, lawyers for the city defended the more than 3,600 gay marriages sanctioned there, and in Oregon a coalition sued to block same-sex marriages in Multnomah County. In New York, Justice Vincent Bradley issued a temporary restraining order against Jason West, the 26-year-old mayor of New Paltz, at the request of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, which acted on behalf of a local resident. The Mayor, who is being accused of ignoring the oath of office to uphold the law, insist that he kept his oath to uphold the constitution. “But in our system of constitutional government, judges have the last word. I intend to fully abide by the judge's decision. But I am considering all my legal options," James West said in a prepared statement.

California Supreme Court
stops same-sex marriages
On Thursday, 11 March 2004, The California Supreme Court ordered San Francisco officials here to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, bringing at least a temporary end to a month long experiment that had thrust San Francisco to the forefront of a national debate on gay marriage.

The court did not rule on the legality of same-sex marriages, nor did it address the constitutional issues raised by city officials in defense of them. It also left open the possibility that the city could issue the licenses again after further review of two lawsuits on the matter.

Opponents of the marriages, stymied in several efforts to block them in the lower courts, declared a long-awaited victory.

"It is an overdue day, but a good day," said State Senator William J. Knight, a Palmdale Republican who was the author of a successful ballot measure in 2000 opposing same-sex marriages. "Finally the courts have taken action to put an end to the anarchy in San Francisco."

The ruling came as a shock to city officials and groups who support same-sex marriages despite a state ban in state law. The advocacy group Marriage Equality California organized a march from the Castro District to the Supreme Court building for a rally. Meanwhile conservative and religious opponents of same-sex marriages claimed victory was theirs.

In defiant mood, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said the city would continue to challenge the constitutionality of the state's ban in court. The city filed a lawsuit on 11 March 2004 in San Francisco Superior Court raising some of its concerns.

The Mayor told City Mayors at a news conference that he believed that when constitutional question were addressed he would prevail. "But I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't other setbacks in this process. This is the beginning of a struggle, hardly the end," Mr Newsom said.

California’s Austrian-born Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, said in a statement that he pleased that the justices of the California Supreme Court determined this matter to be an issue of fundamental statewide importance.

By the time the Californian Supreme Court intervened, San Francisco had issued some 4,100 marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Another 2,600 couples had made appointments for a license.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom becomes hero of equal rights movement after allowing gay marriages

US President George W Bush:
"We must defend the sanctity of marriage against activist judges who are attempting to redefine marriage by court order without listening to the voices of the people."

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom:
"I imagine, between 1948 and 1967, we all waited around for the courts of this country to recognize interracial marriages. There are certain principles in life that transcend patience, and one of them to me is the obligation not to discriminate against people.”

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger:
"Gay marriages are a threat to civil order."

Wife in racially mixed marriage
"Although I'm not gay, for 16 years I've been in a marriage that a group of nine "activist judges," led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, legalized in 1967. They did so by striking down the laws of 16 states, mostly in the South, that had considered marriages such as ours illegal, immoral and ungodly. In other words, I'm white and my husband is black."