The Massachusetts legislature gave final approval for this year to a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage but legalize civil unions, taking the first decisive step toward stripping same-sex couples of court-mandated marriage rights. Monday's 105-92 vote, which must be affirmed again during the next two-year session and by voters in the fall of 2006, completes the legislature's action on gay marriage for the year. Under a decision in November by the state's highest court, the nation's first gay marriages will take place in Massachusetts beginning May 17. The proposed amendment would have no effect on that deadline, but Gov. Mitt Romney has said he might seek a way to delay any marriages if a proposed constitutional amendment were adopted this year. The proposal specifies that civil unions would not grant federal benefits to gay couples. If the amendment is approved by voters, Massachusetts would join Vermont in offering same-sex couples the chance to join in civil unions.
Gay rights advocates had urged lawmakers to let the court decision stand. "I believe many of them are going to feel very ashamed of what they've just done today," said Arline Isaacson, co-leader of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. Many conservatives also opposed the solution, arguing that it requires citizens to vote on two very different questions--a gay marriage ban and legalization of civil unions--with one vote. "We are giving the people a false choice," said state representative Vinny deMacedo, a Republican. "We're saying, 'No problem, you can vote to define marriage as between a man and a woman, but the only way you can do it is if you create civil unions that are entirely the same as marriage.'"
Supporters of the measure argued that it was the only way to get some type of constitutional ban on the ballot in November 2006. "The amendment stinks, but at least it gives people a chance to vote," said Democratic state representative James Fagan. All 200 seats of the legislature are up for election this fall, and lawmakers will have to defend their votes on the contentious social issue.