Massachusetts lawmakers moved a step closer to approving a state constitutional amendment that would strip gay couples of their right to marry, but the debate, which has caught the attention of the nation, is far from over. After logging more than 30 hours of intense deliberations over the course of two months, lawmakers ended their impasse Thursday by stopping just short of giving final approval to a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage while making Massachusetts only the second state to grant civil union benefits to same-sex couples. Rather than run past midnight, lawmakers recessed their constitutional convention and planned to resume the debate on March 29. The amendment's provision for legalizing civil unions gave little solace to gay rights advocates, who want lawmakers to uphold full marriage rights for same-sex couples, as mandated by the state's highest court in November and reaffirmed in February. "For many legislators, prejudice won out over equality," Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said after the current version of the amendment made it through three rounds of votes Thursday.
If approved later this month, the constitutional amendment would then proceed to the next step in the convoluted process, which requires the 2005-2006 legislature to approve an identical measure before it could then wind up on the November 2006 ballot before voters. In the interim, the nation's first legally sanctioned gay marriages are scheduled to take place beginning May 17 in the state, although Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and some legislative leaders have said they would try to block the marriage licenses from being issued. Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, has called on Romney to "do whatever he can do to delay the implementation of the [court] decision until the voters have a chance to vote on it."
Massachusetts senate president Robert Travaglini expressed optimism that after weeks of intense debate and failed compromises, lawmakers were headed toward consensus on a contentious issue that has placed them in the national spotlight. "I believe we've overcome significant hurdles to get to this point," Travaglini said. "I would hope that the road gets somewhat smoother and that we have encountered all of the bumps along the way as of today."
The protracted debate in Massachusetts was taking place on an issue that has captivated the nation in recent months, particularly as a series of cities and towns have unilaterally agreed to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of local and state law. While the constitutional convention raged on in Massachusetts, at the other end of the country, the California supreme court on Thursday ordered an immediate halt to same-sex weddings in San Francisco until it can decide if
the city's mayor has the power to authorize the unions.
The votes in favor of the state constitutional ban occurred against a backdrop of renewed protests on Beacon Hill, where thousands gathered in prayer and protest from sunrise until nearly midnight. The constitutional convention was a continuation of the forum that recessed a month ago in an impasse after two days of debate. Thursday's action was marked by parliamentary maneuvering by gay marriage supporters, who voted in favor of a ban several times in an attempt to defeat more stringent versions. They withdrew their support on the third vote, apparently to no effect. At the end of the day, however, they expressed optimism that they had successfully sidetracked other versions of a constitutional ban that would have provided fewer rights to gay couples. "I think that's a great win," said Sen. Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. (D-Pittsfield), who supports gay marriage.
During the day, opponents of gay marriage spoke out passionately against the current version of the amendment, arguing that the merger of a ban on gay marriage and approval of civil unions would ask voters to render a single verdict on two diametrically opposed policies. "The language of that vote is confusing at best to the electorate and will probably, if put on the ballot in that fashion, be defeated," said Rep. Philip Travis (D-Rehoboth), the sponsor of the original proposed amendment, which would have banned gay marriage and made no provision for civil unions.
While the national landscape has shifted dramatically since lawmakers last convened, with unsanctioned same-sex marriages occurring across the country and President Bush endorsing a federal constitutional amendment to ban these marriages, the spotlight has remained on Massachusetts because of its unique status as the only state where such marriages will soon become legal. "No hatred, just loving biblical truth," read posters held by some of the opponents of gay marriage who gathered on the statehouse steps in Boston. Lynn Tibbets, 50, of Boston, held a sign urging, "No discrimination in the constitution." "It used to just make me mad--the people on the other side. Now it just makes me sad," Tibbets, a financial management consultant, said as she choked back tears.