First marriage licenses issued to Maryland same-sex couples

Even before pressing the elevator button to the sixth floor of the courthouse, Jessie Weber and Nancy Eddy were grinning so broadly that fellow passengers guessed their destination: the marriage license office.

“I’ll marry you today,” a Baltimore circuit judge happily told the two women, who were among the first same-sex couples to get a marriage license on Thursday, the first day they became available under a new Maryland law upheld by voters in November.

Actually, same-sex couples have to wait until Jan. 1 to wed, when the law expanding marriage rights to gays and lesbians takes effect. But an opinion by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler gave Circuit Court clerks the option of issuing postdated licenses starting Thursday, when Gov. Martin O’Malley officially confirmed the passage of the same-sex marriage referendum along with other election results.

While Weber, 30, and Eddy, 34, had already affirmed their partnership this summer before 150 invited guests, getting the license to marry proved to be an emotional experience. There were hugs and happy tears, and pictures with the court staff who processed their applications.

“It’s important from a legal standpoint, to have the protections of marriage. But even more than that, it’s affirming to be recognized by the state,” said Weber, a lawyer. “Our ceremony was with our community, our family, our friends, but this feels like being with the entire state. So this is really special.”

The Charles Village residents and their friends, Alli Harper and Jennifer Monti of Timonium, were the first two same-sex couples to arrive at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse downtown when it opened at 8:30 a.m. All four had volunteered countless hours in the successful campaign to pass Question 6, making the documents they received Thursday more than pieces of paper.

“I started tearing up when I saw the marriage license,” said Harper, 34, a lawyer. “All of a sudden, it’s right there in front of you.”

For Harper, who is president of the board of directors of the Maryland ACLU, which fought for marriage equality, getting a license to marry Monti was both a political and personal victory.

“I think ever since the [election] results came in, we were feeling enormous gratitude to everyone who worked so hard to make this happen,” she said. “And then to raise your right hand and swear that everything on the application is true, it’s pretty powerful.”

She and Monti, 32, a physician, have already had a partnership ceremony. “March 20, 2010,” Harper said, eliciting from Monti, “That is correct. Thank you for remembering.” They didn’t know if or when Maryland would expand marriage rights, and they wanted to start a family. As it turned out, Harper’s father died unexpectedly a couple of weeks later, so they are relieved they didn’t wait for the law to catch up with them.

Now, with Harper eight months pregnant, they anticipate telling their daughter and any subsequent generations about being part of the first wave of same-sex marriages in Maryland.

Eddy, a palliative care social worker, also had the future in mind on Thursday, envisioning a time when getting a marriage license won’t be a novelty for gay couples.

“This is another step in being treated equally,” she said. “It’s acceptance. We want to be able to show our kids what it was like when it was a big deal to get a license. Hopefully they won’t get it.”

For now, she and Weber will dig out the glass that they stomped in the Jewish ceremony they had this summer, but didn’t manage to shatter, for a second wedding they plan to have at home the second week in January.

There was a slight delay in getting her license as staff worked with a newly revised computer program used to process and record marriage licenses. The program changed terms like “man” and “woman” to “Party 1” and “Party 2,” for example, and staff had to manually override the effective date of the licenses.

Normally, licenses go into effect after a two-day “cooling-off” period — a vestige of when Maryland cracked down on the “marriage mills” of Elkton and other areas where anyone could get a license and marry in the same day, Gansler’s opinion noted.

Other states are similarly revising their marriage procedures: In Washington state, where voters also approved a same-sex marriage law, a Seattle court shortly after midnight Thursday issued a marriage license to a lesbian couple. In Maine, the third state that passed a gay marriage law on Election Day, the measure takes effect on Dec. 29, a Saturday, and several cities have announced they will open their offices at 12:01 a.m. to issue marriage licenses and perform wedding ceremonies. (There is no waiting period in Maine.)

In Maryland, most of the state’s 24 Circuit Courts planned to begin issuing licenses Thursday, said Sandra K. Dalton, chairwoman of the state’s Conference of Circuit Court Clerks, who serves that role in Frederick County.

A few courts, though, were still working on making necessary changes. Harford County Circuit Court Clerk James Reilly said his office was working to develop an “internal administrative process” and would begin taking applications on Dec. 12. In Prince George’s County, a computer glitch that should be fixed in the next couple of days should allow for licenses to be issued, said David J. Billings, chief deputy clerk.

The clerks in Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County, Julie L. Ensor and Robert P. Duckworth, said Thursday that the transition went smoothly for them. By afternoon, Ensor said, her office had processed six applications for same-sex marriage, while Duckworth had issued three licenses.

“The word is just beginning to get out,” the Anne Arundel clerk said, adding that he anticipates a lot of couples celebrating the New Year and the new law by taking their vows at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1. “I think there are going to be a lot of midnight weddings.”

And, of course, Thursday was only Day One — clerks’ offices will continue issuing licenses through the rest of the year. But for those planning one of those New Year’s Eve weddings, Wayne A. Robey, clerk of the Howard County Circuit Court reminds that Friday, Dec. 28, is the last day to get a marriage license and still be within the required two-day waiting period for a Jan. 1 wedding, given that the courthouse is closed Saturday and Sunday.

In Baltimore City, Clerk of the Court Frank Conaway said there’s a possibility the courthouse will open on Jan. 1, normally a holiday, if couples wanted him to marry them on New Year’s Day. One couple contacted him about that, and he referred them to the administrative judge, who would decide whether to open the courthouse. Conaway, whose office issued about a half-dozen licenses to same-sex couples Thursday, hadn’t heard if the couple followed through on the request yet.

If so, Conaway is ready: The vows that will be used in city courthouse weddings have been rewritten to accommodate everyone.

In the past, couples were asked individually if they would take “this woman” or “this man” to be his or her lawfully wedded wife or husband. Now, the individuals will be referred to by name, and asked about taking a “lawfully wedded spouse.”

And, instead of being pronounced “husband and wife,” they will be pronounced “lawfully married.”