Massachusetts lawmakers defeated a third version of a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage Thursday, but they appeared poised to take up new proposal that would legalize civil unions while simultaneously stripping gay couples of their court-granted right to marriage. The third version, voted down 103-94, would have defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Unlike the two versions defeated Wednesday, it neither required nor prohibited civil unions.
The vote sent the much-anticipated constitutional convention into uncertain territory, though legislative leaders circulated text of a so-called compromise amendment that they believed could secure the 101 votes needed. Any amendment approved by the legislature would have to survive a series of legislative votes--now and in future years--before going on the ballot in November 2006.
The national spotlight has been focused on the Massachusetts legislature since November, when the state's highest court ruled the nation's first state-sanctioned gay marriages would take place in mid May. Anti-gay marriage lawmakers immediately said they would try stop those marriages.
While lawmakers engaged in a fiery debate about which rights should be conveyed to gay couples, nearly 100 gay rights advocates rallied and chanted outside the house chamber. A day that had begun on a quieter note--absent the thousands of spectators who came Wednesday--ended with the verses of "We Shall Overcome" echoing through the statehouse. Supporters of gay marriage far outnumbered opponents Thursday.
Inside, lawmakers engaged in lofty rhetoric about the need to preserve the institution of marriage and importance of basic equality. "We are changing a mindset in nature that has existed for 4,000 years and making Massachusetts the birthplace not of liberty but the birthplace of the approval of marriage of two people of the same sex," said Rep. Philip Travis (D-Rehoboth), who wrote the original gay marriage ban and whose updated version was voted down.
A new version of the gay marriage ban, crafted by bipartisan leaders of the house and senate, provides that "two persons of the same sex shall have the right to form a civil union, if they meet the requirements set forth by law for marriage between a man and a woman." Gay marriage supporters argue it would revert gay couples to second-class citizenship after a hard-fought court victory.
The debate took a decidedly personal tone Thursday, as several lawmakers shared from their own experiences.
Sen. Jarrett Barrios (D-Cambridge), the first openly gay lawmaker to speak during the two days of debate and one of the most visible critics of the constitutional ban, choked back tears when he spoke about how an amendment would affect his family. He and his partner of 10 years have two adopted sons, ages 12 and 7. "Don't believe those who tell you that just defining marriage between a man and a woman will not hurt your gay and lesbian friends, your family members, your neighbors, and your colleagues, because it will," Barrios said.
A move to derail the constitutional amendment process was voted down early Thursday. Rep. Shaun P. Kelly (R-Dalton) had called for the adjournment of the convention, which would have killed all the proposed amendments and left the constitution intact. The most recent effort to change the state constitution has been in the works since last year. But the court's ruling gave the issue a new sense of urgency, particularly with the prospect of same-sex marriages just around the corner.
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, 39 states and the federal government have approved laws or amendments banning the recognition of gay marriage.