With same-sex marriage licenses officially set to go into effect Jan. 1, many gay and lesbian couples around the state have been eager to celebrate their unions on New Year's Eve or Day – and Harford County is no exception.
The protocol of making those weddings actually happen, however, might be a little tricky.
State Attorney General Doug Gansler recently wrote that local marriage bureaus can begin taking applications for same-sex marriage licenses "immediately" and may issue licenses to same-sex couples in December as long as they do not become effective until "the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve," when such marriages can be formally authorized under Maryland law.
"We believe clerks may begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses at any time after the Governor formally proclaims that [the law] has been approved by the voters, which we would expect to occur on or about December 6," he wrote.
He noted it is ultimately up to individual county clerks to decide whether to issue licenses ahead of time.
"We believe that this is an administrative decision that must necessarily be left to the clerks and, to some extent, the circuit court judges that oversee their administration of the marriage laws," Gansler wrote in his opinion Nov. 29.
Baltimore City began issuing licenses to same-sex couples Thursday.
Harford County Clerk of the Circuit Court Jim Reilly said Wednesday he has been contacted by "several individuals," including Havre de Grace City Councilman Joe Smith, about the possibility of getting a license in time for a New Year's wedding.
He said he does not expect the court to be capable of accepting applications for same-sex marriages until Dec. 12, however.
The main challenges to issuing licenses immediately are the wait for Gov. Martin O'Malley's formal approval, which came Thursday, and the need to update the Circuit Court's software, Reilly said.
"As of this writing, the administrative function (software application) is not acceptable for same-sex marriage," he wrote. "Judicial Information System has promise[d] they are working on the software, making it compatible to accept same sex marriages and should be ready by [Thursday]."
"If both the Governor and the software issues are no longer in play, I will be accepting applications for same-sex marriage so that Harford County citizens can be united by a state-recognized [official] to perform the wedding ceremony on [Jan. 1]," Reilly wrote. "There needs to be some internal administrative process that would need to be developed also, and I would have that process worked out so that on [Dec. 12] Harford County Clerk's office would start accepting same-sex marriage applicants."
Reilly said he did not receive the official copy of Gansler's opinion until Wednesday.
"No decision has been made by me until that opinion is thoroughly understood as to my responsibilities of what can and cannot happen and what decision(s) need to be made in reference to same-sex marriage applications and ceremony," he said, noting the courthouse is closed on New Year's Eve and no wedding ceremonies will be performed there until Jan. 2 because of the state holiday on Jan. 1.
Smith said Thursday he is still planning a ceremony in January, if not on New Year's.
"A few weeks is not a lot of time to plan a wedding. If it is possible, then we will certainly consider that option," he said. "Whatever day we choose, our focus will be on obtaining the legal recognition more so than the ceremony. We will be celebrating 25 years together as a couple next year and are planning a celebration later in the year in honor of the anniversary of when we met."
Smith said he contacted Reilly to know if he at least had the option to get married Jan. 1 and, if not, to encourage him to consider changing his position.
"Even if we don't take advantage of this, I thought others should be able to and wanted to speak up on their behalf," he said. "It appears that he has since read the opinion and has concluded that Harford will join with other counties and Baltimore and begin issuing licenses this month to be effective on [Jan. 1]. This is great news and I want to thank Mr. Reilly for his fair consideration and quick response."