State lawmakers are expected to vote next week on repealing a 1913 law that prevents out-of-state gay and lesbian couples from getting married in Massachusetts, reigniting a divisive debate on an issue that has stirred passions and put the state in the national spotlight.
The Senate is expected to take up the legislation Tuesday, and the House will follow shortly afterward, according to several lawmakers. House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray favor the repeal, but their support on such a hot-button social issue does not guarantee that rank-and-file lawmakers will follow.
Advocates of same-sex marriage rights said they are hopeful the repeal will pass, given the support from the legislative leadership and from Governor Deval Patrick, whose position is much more sympathetic than that of Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican who was a staunch opponent of gay marriage.
"This is extraordinarily significant," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "If we get the 1913 law repealed, it brings us one very important step closer to full equality."
Several lawmakers, though, have long opposed same-sex marriage and plan to fight the repeal.
"I have a problem with it; I've always had a problem with it," said Representative James R. Miceli, a Democrat from Wilmington who has consistently voted against gay marriage. "I just feel that it would be hypocritical if I turned around and said, 'Fine, you can come here and get married, and we'll recognize it.' "
Proponents expect their effort to repeal the law to be divisive, but not as much as a constitutional amendment last year that would have defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. That measure, which needed a two-thirds majority, was rejected, 151 to 45.
Repeal of the 1913 law requires just a simple majority to pass, but legislative leaders would not make any predictions yesterday, adding that they were just starting to poll members to see if they have enough votes.
The 1913 statute prevents Massachusetts from sanctioning marriages that are not legal in the state where the couple lives. The law was enacted in part to prevent interracial couples from evading their own state's ban by traveling to Massachusetts to marry. It was a little-used and rarely enforced law until opponents used it to prevent out-of-state gay couples from getting married in Massachusetts after the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2004.
DiMasi declined requests for an interview.
"As a strong supporter of gay marriage rights, the speaker believes the so-called 1913 law is outdated and unfair," said David Guarino, DiMasi's spokesman. "He believes it should be repealed, and he is hopeful that we will see it repealed before the end of this session."
The governor and Senate president have previously said they oppose the law, and their spokesmen said yesterday that they continue to support repeal. Patrick and Murray also declined requests for an interview.
"The governor supports the repeal of the law and will sign it if passed," said Patrick's spokesman, Kyle Sullivan.
Removing the law would put Massachusetts on par with California, where a court ruled in May that gay marriage was legal for all couples, including those who live out of state. In May, Governor David Paterson of New York directed all state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages in other states, including Massachusetts and California.
Massachusetts legislators have considered repealing the 1913 law in the past, but have not put an emphasis on trying to repeal it, largely because attention was diverted last year to quashing the effort to make same-sex marriage illegal.
Former senator Jarrett T. Barrios, a Democrat from Cambridge, filed legislation in 2007 that would have repealed the law. Although he resigned last year to become president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, his legislation is still pending and will be championed by Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat.
"It is time for this to be erased from the annals of Massachusetts law," Wilkerson said.
In 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a landmark ruling saying that prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying was unconstitutional and paving the way for marriage licenses to go out in May 2004. But, citing the 1913 law, Romney ordered city and town clerks to prevent nonresident gay couples from marrying in Massachusetts, a decision that was upheld by the SJC in March 2006.
Supporters of repealing the 95-year-old law contend that it is a matter of fairness and that it would also boost the state's economy by encouraging gay residents from other states to come to Massachusetts to marry.
Opponents fear that, as Romney said, a repeal would turn the state into "the Las Vegas of same-sex marriage" and force other states to recognize Massachusetts marriage laws.
"We certainly don't want to see Massachusetts exporting this radical social experiment to the other 49 states, and that's what this would do," said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which plans to mobilize and oppose the repeal effort.
The issue has never come to the House floor. The Senate voted to repeal the law as a budget amendment in 2004, but the provision was not included as part of the final budget.
"It's time for it to go," said Marc Solomon, executive director of MassEquality, a gay-marriage advocacy coalition.
"We have one important piece of unfinished business," he said, "and that's repealing this antiquated law."
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.