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Massachusetts high court looks at civil-unions bill

Massachusetts high court looks at civil-unions bill

The Massachusetts senate voted on Thursday to ask the state's highest court if Vermont-style civil unions would satisfy the court's recent decision legalizing gay marriage. The vote was taken without objection. Senate president Robert Travaglini, a Democrat, said he and other senators want the supreme judicial court to clarify its ruling, which said the state constitution entitles gay couples to all the rights of marriage. "There are a number of legal experts whose opinions differ on the interpretation," Travaglini said. The court issued its landmark decision in mid November and gave the legislature 180 days to change the laws accordingly. Some lawmakers and legal observers say that anything short of gay marriage would not satisfy the court. Others argue that the decision left the door open for civil unions that convey the rights of marriage without the title. Arline Isaacson of the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus said she is confident the court will reject the civil-unions bill as half a measure. "They were very clear that they supported civil marriage rights for everyone," she said. Isaacson said there is a significant difference between civil unions and gay marriages because only the latter would give same-sex couples a chance to take advantage of federal benefits like Social Security. In the state house, Democratic representative Charles Murphy has said he will submit a civil-unions bill, perhaps as early as next week, that would give gay couples all the rights and responsibilities of marriage. This bill would also define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in state statutes, but would not change the constitution. Members of the house and senate said they are hoping to get a decision from the high court before February 11, when state lawmakers will get together as a 200-member constitutional convention and take up an agenda that includes a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Gov. Mitt Romney said he would pursue the constitutional amendment, but that process would take up to three years and require a ballot vote in 2006. Travaglini said that if the court finds that his civil-unions bill meets its criteria, he is confident that the senate would approve it. Passage in the more conservative house is less certain, however.

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