Competing cries of "Jesus Christ!" and "Equal rights!" shook the Massachusetts statehouse as advocates gathered Monday to witness a third round of the legislature's debate over a constitutional ban on marriage for same-sex couples. In mid March, when the constitutional convention was last convened, lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a ban on same-sex marriage that would simultaneously legalize civil unions for gay couples if approved by voters in November 2006. The legislature adopted a new version of that proposal on Monday, bringing the marathon process one step closer to completion for the year and eliminating consideration of any other proposed changes to the language. The swift vote to adopt the new version, which appeared to take some lawmakers by surprise, eliminated several other proposed amendments, one of which would have weakened the civil unions provision and another which would have split the question in two, allowing voters to weigh in separately on gay marriage and civil unions. The legislature must still take two more votes before the amendment is considered approved for the session. If that happens, it will then proceed to the 2005-2006 legislative session for further consideration before going to voters in the fall of 2006.
Under a state high court ruling issued in November, the nation's first state-sanctioned gay marriage will take place in Massachusetts beginning May 17. The constitutional amendment would have no effect on this deadline, but Gov. Mitt Romney has said he might seek a way to delay the marriages if a constitutional amendment is adopted this year by the legislature. The measure was little solace to gay rights supporters, who want lawmakers to uphold the full marriage rights accorded by the supreme judicial court in November. Conservatives were not much happier with the compromise, which would
make Massachusetts only the second state to legalize civil unions.
While gay-marriage supporters dominated the halls of the statehouse on the three previous days of the convention, in mid February and mid March, hundreds of religious opponents of gay marriage mixed into the crowd on Monday. Within minutes of the statehouse doors opening at 8 a.m., hundreds had
gathered outside the house chamber and were competing for key positions at the front rope, facing the chamber. Police gathered, trying to ensure that the close quarters and high emotions did not lead to physical conflicts. After each intonation of "Jesus!" by gay rights opponents, gay rights advocates tacked on "loves us." The two opposing sides then shouted "Jesus Christ!" and "Equal rights!" simultaneously, blending into a single, indistinguishable chant. "I'm just here to support Christ," said Olivia Long, 32, of Boston, a parishioner at New Covenant Christian Church. "We love all people, but we want to keep it like it was in the beginning." Next to her, Eric Carreno, 26, of Somerville, held a sign that read "Christ does not discriminate. Why do Christians?"