Marriage amendment a hot topic for Mass. legislators

BY admin

February 11 2004 1:00 AM ET

An Associated Press survey of Massachusetts lawmakers shows a legislature deeply divided over a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in the state, where the nation's first legally sanctioned same-sex weddings could take place as early as May 17. The 199 house and senate lawmakers--all of whom are up for reelection in November--could take up the volatile issue at a constitutional convention as early as Wednesday. As the convention looms, senate leaders are discussing a possible compromise amendment that would ban gay marriage but allow civil unions. The issue gained urgency last week when the state's high court declared that anything less than full-fledged marriage for gays in Massachusetts would be unconstitutional. The opinion put Massachusetts lawmakers at the center of a political maelstrom that is being closely watched across the country and could play a role in the presidential race.

All of Massachusetts's legislators were contacted by telephone by the Associated Press after last week's supreme judicial court opinion was issued, and 148 responded. Of those, 62 said they would oppose the constitutional amendment, while 71 said they could support it. An additional 12 said they were undecided, and three said they had no comment. Fifty-one did not respond. There may be nothing lawmakers can do to prevent the nation's first same-sex marriages from taking place beginning May 17, although several lawmakers say they are trying to find ways around this. The earliest the proposed amendment could reach the ballot is November 2006. That is because the proposal first needs to be approved by a majority of lawmakers in two successive legislative sessions, which in Massachusetts last two years. Under this requirement, a revamped legislature would take up the issue after next fall's elections.

House speaker Thomas Finneran, a staunch opponent of gay marriage, is working on legislation that would block the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in May, when the supreme judicial court's decision declaring gay marriage constitutional would take effect. The house is in formal session
Tuesday, but it was not immediately clear whether there would be a vote on his proposal. Veteran statehouse observers are calling the amendment situation extremely fluid, with some lawmakers flip-flopping under intense lobbying by members of the clergy, fellow politicians, and gay rights advocates. There's also the scrutiny of the national media and the fact that it is an election year. "In 20 years of lobbying, I've never seen such a fluid issue," said Arline Isaacson, co-leader of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "There's such a high degree of emotion in this building, and emotions are guiding legislators, who would rather be more thoughtful about this."

Rep. Philip Travis (D-Rehoboth), who proposed the amendment, predicted Monday that his side would have the 101 votes necessary to pass it this session. Senate leaders spent Monday behind closed doors trying to hammer out an alternative compromise amendment that would both define marriage as a union between a man and woman but also create a civil union mechanism for same-sex
couples. "We are gauging whether there is consensus for it in the senate," said Ann Dufresne, a spokeswoman for senate president Robert Travaglini (D-Boston). "We should have a more definitive answer Tuesday."

It was unclear whether the compromise plan would satisfy those adamantly opposed to gay marriage or those who believe same-sex couples should have full marriage rights. Supporters of the Travis amendment said they were basing their position on personal beliefs and public opinion. "Marriage has been a tradition for 3,000 years," said Rep. David Flynn, a Democrat. "I don't think you can change the laws of nature, and I don't think waiting a couple of years to see how people feel about it is the wrong thing to do." Sen. Robert O'Leary, a Democrat whose Cape Cod district includes the gay mecca of Provincetown, said he will vote against the amendment. "It's a civil rights issue," he said. "I don't think we should be amending the state constitution to narrow people's rights."

Both Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, and Finneran have expressed their adamant support for the amendment. Most of the Republicans who responded favored the amendment, but they occupy only 29 of the 200 legislative seats in the heavily Roman Catholic legislature. One seat is vacant. The senate leans more strongly against the amendment, with 21 of the 39 current members saying they would oppose it, while the house appears to be more definitively in favor, according to the Associated Press tally.

A poll taken after last week's court opinion shows that, by a 2-1 ratio, Americans do not want laws in their states that would legalize gay marriages. The National Annenberg Election Survey of 814 adults was conducted February 5-8 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

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