The debate over gay marriage in Massachusetts will switch--at least temporarily--from the judicial to the legislative branch this week as lawmakers conduct the first-ever public hearing on a prospective bill legalizing same-sex unions. "We have to take a very hard look at what rights can be conferred on same-sex couples," said Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty (D-Chelsea), cochairman of the state judiciary committee and a top lieutenant to house speaker Thomas Finneran. "More and more it's becoming an issue that's going to have to be dealt with in some way, fashion, or form."
Thursday's scheduled hearing before O'Flaherty's committee is occurring as gay rights advocates across the nation await word from Massachusetts's highest court on a case filed by seven same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses. Experts on both sides of the issue anticipate that the supreme judicial court decision, which was initially expected in early July, could make Massachusetts the first state in the country to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. "Everyone's just holding their breath and hoping the court will provide our families with the legal protections that we have been denied for far too long," said Josh Friedes, advocacy director for the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts. "The court case has forced the legislature and the public to recognize that the gay and lesbian community is not going to accept second-class citizenship."
Rather than wait for a judicial edict, several lawmakers have said that the legislature should take the matter into its own hands. Senate president Robert Travaglini (D-Boston) said last month that he was committed to bringing civil union legislation to the floor for a vote. In the past the senate has approved domestic-partner benefits for gay public employees, but the measures have always been defeated in the more conservative house of representatives. The legislature has conducted several public hearings on a constitutional amendment that would legally define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Thursday, however, will mark the first time the legislature has begun consideration of a pro-gay marriage bill. Other bills under consideration would establish civil unions for gay couples.
While gay rights advocates call the hearing "historic," Ronald Crews of the Massachusetts Family Institute said it is simply part of the legislative process and no sign that change is forthcoming. "I hope that the legislators are aware of the public sentiment out there," Crews said. "I don't see support in the populace for counterfeit marriage." The gay marriage legislation would give gay couples all of the approximately 1,400 rights and benefits of marriage. Civil union legislation would confer only about 350 protections and create a legal status that would not be recognized in other states. Crafting a compromise between people like Crews, who want no benefits of marriage conferred upon gay couples, and people like Friedes, who believe gay couples deserve all the benefits of marriage, is the
challenge facing the legislature, O'Flaherty said. "There's a lot of heels dug in on both sides of the issue," O'Flaherty said. "But I think that as a legislature, it's our duty to find compromises on troublesome and vexing public policy issues. I'm just hopeful to some degree that we can move the discussion to a point where we have a bill or proposal in front of our colleagues that can be agreed upon by a majority."