Massachusetts lawmakers, thrust into the epicenter of the national debate on gay rights by a landmark ruling by the state's highest court, gathered Wednesday to consider rewriting the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages. Citizens from across the country swarmed into the normally sedate statehouse amid tight security and international media scrutiny. Impromptu rallies erupted outside the 200-year-old building, while inside lawmakers and advocacy groups held last-minute news conferences to champion their cause.
A joint session of the house and senate was to convene in the afternoon to consider an amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. A competing proposal, floated by bipartisan senate leadership, would add a provision legalizing civil unions in Massachusetts in November 2006, the earliest an amendment could be placed on a ballot for voter approval. At that time, any gay couples married under the state supreme judicial court's November ruling that found gay marriage constitutional would be stripped of their licenses and considered part of a civil union.
The first state-recognized same-sex marriages in U.S. history are to start taking place in mid May, giving couples more than two years to get married before a constitutional amendment could take away those rights. It's a tightly controlled legislature, where Democrats hold 170 of legislature's 200 seats (there's currently one vacancy) and carefully orchestrate the course of the most perfunctory of sessions. Even top powerbrokers were uncertain how Wednesday's proceedings would unfold.
While the senate alternative appeared to be winning support of moderates in the legislature, it was also serving to unite gay rights advocates and their conservative opponents, who both harshly condemned the plan. The proposed constitutional ban also has united political foes, including Republican governor Mitt Romney and Democratic house speaker Thomas Finneran. Senate president Robert Travaglini, a Democrat, has not revealed his position on the amendment, although he has said he favors civil unions and opposes gay marriage.
"It's still very fluid," said senate minority leader Brian Lees (R-East Longmeadow), a sponsor of the alternative. He said he was cautiously optimistic about his plan: "When you have the far left and the far right both saying almost the exact same thing, I feel pretty good." The votes taken Wednesday--or perhaps later if an extended debate occurs--will force lawmakers to finally declare their stand on a contentious social issue that most would prefer to avoid, especially with all 200 legislative seats up for grabs at the November elections.
Originally proposed in early 2003, the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage gained center stage after the state's highest court ruled in November that it is unconstitutional to bar gay couples from marriage--a 4-3 decision that the court definitively reaffirmed in an advisory opinion issued last week. The soonest a constitutional amendment could on the ballot is November 2006, if it is approved by 101 lawmakers during this two-year legislative session, which ends in December, and again during the 2005-2006 session.
If gay marriage takes place in Massachusetts, federal lawsuits would likely ensue as gay couples seek recognition in other states and by the federal government. While state marriages are normally respected in other jurisdictions, 38 states and the federal government have approved laws or amendments banning the recognition of gay marriage. Massachusetts civil unions would convey many of the benefits and responsibilities of marriage but would only be recognized--conceivably--in Vermont, which enacted civil union legislation in 2000.
Adopted in 1780, the Massachusetts constitution is the oldest still-governing written constitution in the world. It has been amended 120 times, most recently in 2000 when voters endorsed making the federal census the basis for legislative redistricting and stripping voting rights from incarcerated felons.
Busloads of people on both sides gathered outside the statehouse hours before the scheduled vote, waving signs, singing, and getting into occasional verbal tussles. "I'm against discrimination in any form," said Karen Doyle, a 49-year-old gay rights activist from Andover. "I don't care if you're purple, green, yellow, polka-dotted. We are all taxpaying citizens with rights."
Next to the group was one woman who held a poster that said, "Honor thy father and mother."
Inside, James Meola, 57, of West Boylston, a health care administrator wearing a tie with Bible passages printed on it, was one of the people selected for one of the coveted 120 public seats in the house gallery during the debate. "God has laid down the moral absolutes for all mankind in his Holy Scriptures," he said, "and the cornerstone of civilization is the institution established by God called the family."