The Massachusetts high court's landmark endorsement this week of same-sex marriage was seen by many as a natural step for a state that has long been home to the most Democratic legislature in the country. But while the state's Supreme Judicial Court has granted gay rights advocates a series of major victories over the past decade--from adoption to visitation rights--the legislature has a history of resisting new rights for gays and lesbians.
"When people think of Massachusetts, they think of Michael Dukakis and Ted Kennedy," said Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman. "But Massachusetts is clearly much more conservative legislatively than the body politic at large around the country believes."
Home to a large Catholic population with an archdiocese that has historically been a strong influence at the statehouse, Massachusetts hasn't had a Democratic governor in more than a decade. Of the Supreme Judicial Court's seven justices, six of them were appointed by Republican governors. The leading representative of Democratic conservatism in Massachusetts is house speaker Thomas M. Finneran, a Boston Catholic considered the most powerful politician in the state, who is adamantly opposed to gay marriage and abortion rights. Known for his iron-fisted control of the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, Finneran has surrounded himself with ideological soul mates who support a state constitutional ban on gay marriage and helped thwart domestic-partnership legislation. "There's some deep-felt feelings on his part that don't coincide with the liberals from Cambridge and Weston," said Tufts University professor Jeffrey Berry. "Clearly he has some convictions."
Since Tuesday's ruling, Finneran has been silent, but one of his top lieutenants is floating the idea of Vermont-style civil union legislation that would grant the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples but not the symbolic title. Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, has also denounced the decision and pushed the idea of civil unions.
Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, a Democrat, said the court's ruling does not necessarily mean the state must allow gay marriages and said the legislature should test the ruling with a bill that offers same-sex couples the same protections and benefits as traditional married couples. "Reading the opinion several times, I see there is considerable ambiguity," Reilly told The Boston Globe. "I can't say with any certainty what the court intends, nor can anyone else, other than providing for basic fairness." Reilly also criticized the judges for trying to shape social policy. "I don't believe the court should be making profound social changes as the majority opinion does," he said. Reilly also said he would prefer the legislature and court to come to an agreement to avoid a divisive battle over a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages. Gay rights advocates argue, however, that the court decision leaves the legislature little choice but to grant full marriage rights after the 180-day waiting period built into the ruling.
Massachusetts's liberal reputation is built on the legacy of the Kennedys, its party-machine Democratic politics, its status as the only state in the nation to vote for George McGovern in 1972, and the most overwhelmingly Democratic array of elected officials in the country. It is also home to Northampton and Provincetown, two towns with large gay populations that attract gay visitors from around the country. Both U.S. senators are Democrats, as are all 10 Massachusetts members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The state house and senate are 85% Democratic--the strongest majority in any legislature in the country. Romney, a Mormon who ran on a socially moderate platform, has consistently said he is against gay marriage and civil unions but that he supports domestic-partner benefits for gay couples.
The state senate has tended to be more supportive of gay rights, twice approving the domestic-partner benefits legislation only to see it die under Finneran's watch in the house. A joint session of the house and senate also defeated a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage last year through use of a procedural tactic.