Massachusetts debates gay marriage while awaiting high court decision

BY admin

October 23 2003 11:00 PM ET

Lobbyists on both sides of the Massachusetts gay marriage debate said an impending decision by the state's highest court could shift the legislative landscape. A public hearing Thursday by the state house judiciary committee covered legislative initiatives to legalize gay marriage and civil unions. The meeting preceded a joint session by the house and senate on November 12 to consider a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, an initiative that was defeated last year by more than half of the state's 200 lawmakers.

But legislators are still waiting for a decision from the supreme judicial court, which many believe could set a national precedent on the legalization of gay marriage. "Everybody is holding their breath and waiting to see," said Rep. Alice K. Wolf (D-Cambridge), a longtime gay rights advocate. Arline Isaacson, of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said legislators are nervous about the outcome of the court decision: "It could change everything. It makes it less abstract."

Speculation that the supreme judicial court may be leaning toward legalization of gay marriage has transformed the debate about the constitutional amendment from the abstract to the concrete. This has weakened the commitment of people who previously had said they were opposed to an amendment because it addressed an unlikely threat, according to Ron Crews of the Massachusetts Family Institute. "That has removed the argument from some legislators," Crews said. "We need more support than we did last year, and I think we have it."

The Massachusetts high court has heard testimony on a case that could make the state the first in the
country to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. A decision in that case has been expected since early July. The court, however, waived its own internal deadline, leaving advocates on both sides uncertain how to approach the legislative debates. Last year, because the proposed constitutional amendment had been sparked by a citizen petition, it required approval from just over 25% of the state's lawmakers. This year, because the amendment was proposed by a legislator, it would require approval by at least half of the legislature. It would also have to be approved by the 2005-2006 legislative session before being submitted to citizens for a vote. The legislature's leading gay rights advocates are certain that passage of the amendment is unlikely. "Opponents are trying to use the pending supreme judicial court case as a scare tactic," said Sen. Cheryl Jacques (D-Needham). "But most lawmakers recognize this for what it is, which is a discriminatory measure."

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