BOSTON — Out-of-state gay couples got one step closer to a Massachusetts wedding Tuesday when the state Senate voted to repeal a 1913 law that has been used to bar them from marrying here.
The law prohibits couples from obtaining marriage licenses if they can't legally wed in their home states.
The House is expected to vote on the repeal measure later this week. The Senate action came on a voice vote.
After Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay marriages in 2004 under a court order, then-Gov. Mitt Romney ordered town clerks to enforce the then-little-known 1913 law and deny licenses to out-of-state couples.
That move blocked Maine residents Michael Thorne, 55, and James Theberge, 50, from getting married in Massachusetts four years ago. They were among eight out-of-state gay couples who sued but lost in 2006 when the same court that allowed gay marriage refused to toss out the 1913 law.
Now Thorne and Theberge, who have been together 25 years and have two children, are hoping for an August wedding.
"If Gov. (Deval) Patrick signs the bill, we'll be at the Provincetown City Hall," said Thorne, who called Maine's domestic partnership law a poor substitute.
The governor, whose 18-year-old daughter announced publicly last month that she is a lesbian, supports repealing the law. Patrick, the state's first black governor, and other critics of the 95-year-old statute say it carries a racist taint.
The law dates to a time when the majority of states still outlawed interracial marriages, and backers of repeal said the law was intended to smooth relations with those states. Massachusetts has allowed interracial marriages since 1843.
Dianne Wilkerson, the state Senate's lone black member, said repeal was long overdue.
"This is one of the most pernicious statutes on our books," said Wilkerson, a Boston Democrat. "In some respects this bill puts the final nail in the coffin of those dark days."
Another factor driving the repeal effort in Massachusetts was the recent embrace of same-sex marriage by California, which has no residency requirement for obtaining a marriage license.
Opponents of gay marriage said there was no evidence the 1913 law has a racist heritage. They said keeping the law in place was key to preventing gay marriage from spreading to other states, many of which have passed laws or amended their constitution to bar same-sex marriage.
"The Massachusetts Senate has no right to infringe on the internal issues of how other states define marriage, but that's exactly what they voted today to do," said Kris Mineau, president of Massachusetts Family Institute.
Gay marriage foes including Mineau said activists are deliberately portraying the law as racist to speed its repeal.
"Legislators were pressured unscrupulously by same-sex marriage activists to dismantle this law or be branded racists," he said.
But advocates say the segregation-era law was clearly intended to abet discrimination.
Wilkerson said the law was adopted a time of racial tension including a national scandal over black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson's marriage to Lucille Cameron, who was white.
The law makes no explicit racial reference, but outlaws marriages by couples from other jurisdictions if the nuptials "would be void if contracted in such other jurisdiction."
An analysis by the state Office of Housing and Economic Development found repealing the law would draw thousands of couples to Massachusetts, boosting the economy by $111 million, creating 330 jobs and generating $5 million in taxes and fees over three years.