Massachusetts marriage amendment's future uncertain

BY admin

May 18 2005 12:00 AM ET

A year after same-sex couples started taking their first-in-the-nation wedding vows in Massachusetts, a state constitutional amendment designed to undo gay marriage is facing an uncertain future.

Both supporters and opponents of gay marriage, for very different reasons, are hoping to defeat the amendment, which was seen as a compromise when it got preliminary legislative approval a year ago.

The proposal to ban same-sex marriage while allowing civil unions was seen by supporters as a way to preserve some rights for same-sex couples--and by many opponents as a chance to persuade the state supreme judicial court to temporarily stop gay marriage until voters had a say.

Since then the political landscape has shifted, with more support in the legislature for gay marriage and a lack of widespread opposition by voters as thousands of couples have married. At the same time, opponents of gay marriage are considering pulling their support for the compromise to work toward a ban of both same-sex marriages and civil unions. If the amendment fails during a planned second round of voting in the fall, gay marriage will remain legal in Massachusetts.

Sen. Stephen Buoniconti is one of a handful of lawmakers who supported the compromise, which passed 105-92, and is now reconsidering his vote. Buoniconti said he's particularly concerned about creating a legal limbo for the thousands of gay couples who have already married. "That wasn't so much of a question the first time around," said Buoniconti, a Democrat.

And, he said, during his door-to-door senate campaign last year, only one person brought up gay marriage. "The sky hasn't fallen. There's a new landscape. The world has changed."

One of the sponsors of the compromise amendment, Republican senator Brian Lees, also said he's not ruling out a change of heart. "More than likely I will support it, but I want to keep an open mind on it," Lees said. "With a year's hindsight you've got to take a second look, and I will do that. I am continuing to hear from both sides."

Opponents of same-sex marriage are considering gathering voter signatures for a ballot initiative that would ban gay marriage and civil unions, said Ron Crews, head of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

They would need to gather more than 68,000 signatures but would face a lower threshold of legislative support--51 lawmakers instead of 101--to get it on the ballot. The earliest it could go before voters is 2008. "We are more concerned with protecting marriage in the long run even if it
takes a longer time," Crews said.

The Roman Catholic Church also opposes both gay marriage and civil unions.

Last year's compromise came during Sen. John Kerry's unsuccessful campaign for president and reflected the Massachusetts Democrat's position opposing same-sex marriage but supporting civil unions.

A major shift in the legislature came with the retirement of former house speaker Thomas Finneran, a Democrat and an opponent of gay marriage. Finneran's replacement, Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, also a Democrat, supports gay marriage. A spokeswoman for DiMasi said he believes many house members are taking a fresh look at the amendment.

Earlier this year three Democrats who support gay marriage won seats in the Massachusetts house during a special election. But supporters of same-sex marriage also said they don't think they have the votes to kill the compromise language, which they worry could still get on the ballot. They said they fear many lawmakers reconsidering their votes may back out at the last minute to avoid being accused of flip-flopping.

"This is nip and tuck right now, and we could easily lose. We are very nervous," said Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

Others, however, said they feel most people in the state have adjusted to the idea of same-sex marriage and want lawmakers to move on to more pressing matters like education and health care. "I think the extremists on the right desperately want to keep this alive," said Democratic state representative Liz Malia. "I kind of think the issue has run out of gas, and I hope that's true." (AP)

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