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ELLEN GOODMAN

The Vegas of same-sex marriage

BACK IN 2004, a month before the first wedding bells rang for same-sex couples, then-Governor Mitt Romney offered his opinion that "Massachusetts should not become the Las Vegas of same-sex marriage."

It wasn't that he wanted to protect Massachusetts' reputation. He wanted to protect the country from what he regarded as Massachusetts' folly. For that purpose Romney unearthed a 1913 law that said couples couldn't be married here unless the unions would be legal in their home states.

Frankly, I rather fancied the idea of Massachusetts as the new Vegas. What happens here stays here. At about the same time, Britney Spears explained her 55-hour marriage to a childhood friend by saying, "I do believe in the sanctity of marriage, I totally do. But I was in Vegas, and it took over me."

I can't imagine an Elvis impersonator driving a pink Cadillac of to-be-weds up Beacon Hill, nor do I equate the push for marriage equality with the quickie wedding. But I can envision a Paul Revere character ushering couples into Old North Church or a Minuteman welcoming them on the Lexington Green. Like, totally. I was in Lexington, and it took me over.

The 1913 law has a rather murky past. It was ostensibly designed so that couples couldn't escape the marriage laws in their home state. But the law was passed in the aftermath of a front-page scandal involving black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson's marriage to a 19-year-old white woman. It had the racist whiff of anti-miscegenation.

Fast forward to last week. The Massachusetts Legislature finally and firmly ended the push for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. In three years, 10,000 couples have married, the sky hasn't fallen, pro-marriage legislators were not turned out of office, and we now live with gay neighbors, friends, and co-workers who are married. Who wants to take back the stemware?

But almost as soon as the vote was counted, a question arose about repealing the 1913 law. There's already a bill in the Legislature to do that. Governor Deval Patrick -- noting the "smelly origins" of the law and calling it "outdated" -- has said he'd sign a repeal.

So opponents again are ramping up fear and loathing of Las Vegas. Or, as Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute warns, the state could "become the Mecca for same-sex marriage."

Las Vegas? Mecca? So far, little Rhode Island is the only state that allows gay residents to wed in Massachusetts. We are the Las Vegas of Rhode Island. But some are saying that if we overturn the 1913 law, the marrying hordes will come and go back home with a license and a lawsuit.

Whether you like or loathe the idea, repealing the 1913 law isn't likely to have much effect. There are at least 44 states with no chance of recognition because of statutes or constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage. As Joanna Grossman, a family law professor at Hofstra who has written extensively on this subject, says, "There's nothing much one state can do to change the national landscape."

Gay couples can already get married in Canada and come home unmarried. So, too, couples could get married in Massachusetts but go home and be unmarried in, say, Michigan.

"What makes marriage legally important is recognition by the jurisdiction in which you live," says Grossman. "There's the chance that couples would use this to litigate in a handful of other states like New York. There is the chance that, in a few states, a court might rule that even though we don't permit same-sex marriage, we recognize it if valid elsewhere." But by and large, "Massachusetts would suffer a brief economic boom and that would be the end of it."

From the get-go, opponents have been raising alarms -- and funds -- on the notion that same-sex marriage will be "shoved down the throats" of Americans. What's remarkable is that same-sex marriage hasn't been shoved down the throats but placed before our eyes. In barely over a decade, Gallup reports, the number of Americans who believe in same-sex marriage has risen from 27 percent to 46 percent. The radical idea of civil unions is now the moderate idea.

Mine may be the only state with full-fledged marriage for some years. It may be less of a launching pad than a laboratory. We need laws for 2007, not 1913. But all in all, don't confuse us with Vegas or Mecca. What is it the Chamber of Commerce likes to label us? The cradle of liberty. Like, totally.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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