Advocates on both sides of the gay marriage debate lined up at public entrances to the Massachusetts statehouse early Thursday for a chance to sit in the gallery when the legislature reconvenes to debate whether gays have a constitutional right to wed, as mandated by the state's highest court last November.
On this much, both sides agree: Just how Massachusetts lawmakers volley the supreme judicial court's ruling to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples beginning May 17 could be a bellwether for the issue's national course. "The fact that this is the first place, the first test, is always the most important," said Rep. Liz Malia, one of three openly gay state legislators.
By 6 a.m. Thursday, hundreds of people stood at the statehouse entrance as others chanted, waved flags, and sang gospel music on the sidewalks. The legislature was scheduled to begin its second constitutional convention on the issue Thursday afternoon.
Lawmakers failed to agree last month on a proposed amendment to ban gay marriage but allow civil unions, and that same compromise--deemed not good enough by many on both sides--was again in play. The court's order sparked a legislative scramble to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriages. But the earliest the constitution could be amended is 2006.
Whatever action lawmakers take should not bear too much weight nationally because it still must clear several legislative hurdles before reaching voters, said Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "So for at least 2 1/2 years, gay people will be able to marry, and that's what has upset non-Massachusetts folks the most," Isaacson said.
As the behind-closed-doors maneuvering continued up to Thursday's debate, two small groups--normally powerless and sitting on opposite political poles--suddenly found themselves with a strong voice.
The liberal faction, accustomed to making futile speeches for higher taxes and more social spending, met Wednesday to determine how to best utilize its block of votes: Should they support the current proposed amendment to legalize civil unions as the better of two evils? Oppose it because of the ban? Or vote strategically, supporting it to move the process along, only to withdraw their support when the final vote arrives?
House Republicans, meanwhile, who hold 23 seats in the 160-member chamber, also could deliver a powerful block. Most voted against a proposal similar to the one currently before the legislature, helping to derail it. While house speaker Thomas Finneran and senate president Robert Travaglini continue to predict a new version will pass, the number of competing factions within the legislature leaves the outcome uncertain. "There are splits everywhere," Isaacson said. "There are splits among the progressives, the moderates, our opponents."