Courts can immediately begin processing marriage license applications to allow wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples in Maryland on New Year's Day, according to an opinion issued Thursday by the state's attorney general.
The ruling by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a Democrat, could allow couples to get marriage licenses weeks in advance of the Jan. 1 effective date of the state's new same-sex marriage law, allowing them to avoid a two-day waiting period that would have pushed the earliest weddings to Jan. 4.
The ruling paves the way for county circuit courts to begin processing requests immediately – allowing them to get a leg up on Maine and Washington, two states that also recently passed same-sex marriage laws but are not yet able to provide or process applications from new couples.
"Although there is a 'legal reason' why same-sex couples cannot be licensed to marry before midnight on Jan. 1 there is no such legal reason why they should not be licensed to marry at any time after the moment the law takes effect," Mr. Gansler wrote in the opinion, issued to Maryland's Administrative Office of the Courts.
According to the opinion, circuit court clerks can start processing applications before the law's effective date. They can begin issuing licenses as soon as Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley formally certifies the state's election results, which is expected on Dec. 6.
While courts will have the option of handling requests before the new year, they are not required to do so. Any licenses issued in December would not be effective until Jan. 1.
Maryland, Maine and Washington all passed referendums this Election Day legalizing gay marriage, bringing the total to nine states and the District that allow the practice.
Of the three states that approved the practice this month, Washington will be the first to allow actual weddings.
County clerks there also plan to begin issuing licenses on Dec. 6, but theirs will go into effect immediately. The first weddings cannot take place until Dec. 9, after the state's required three-day waiting period.
King County records manager Jon Scherer said his office has been receiving mailed-in applications, but is prohibited from processing them until Dec. 6, partly because its computers don't allow clerks to postdate marriage licenses.
"We're so close to the day that it makes no sense to reject them," said Mr. Scherer, whose county includes Seattle and is the largest in Washington with nearly 2 million people. "We're not processing them yet, but we're holding them aside."
Maine's law will go into effect no later than Jan. 6, or 30 days after Republican Gov. Paul LePage certifies the state's election results.
City and town clerks are in charge of issuing marriage licenses, and some are holding off on reviewing or accepting same-sex requests because current applications refer to those getting married as "bride" and "groom" rather than the more general "spouse."
An official in Bangor, Maine's third-largest city, said they expect state officials to provide non-gender-specific applications in early January.
Maryland and Washington have similar issues with gender-specific applications, but said they will field requests even before the terminology is changed.
In his opinion, Mr. Gansler also asked that Maryland judges who perform weddings give same-sex couples the option of referring to themselves in gender-neutral terms or as husband and husband or wife and wife.
His opinion also clarified that gay couples who have civil unions in another state can get married in Maryland, but that couples who are married in another state cannot.
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