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Massachusetts Debates the State of Matrimony

Lawmakers consider options in reaction to a ruling allowing gays and lesbians to marry.

February 06, 2004|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — One day after the state high court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to marry, Beacon Hill was in a frenzy Thursday -- with Massachusetts lawmakers meeting in emergency session and lobbyists of fiercely divergent views trying to influence the debate.

One prominent Democrat vowed to introduce an amendment to the state constitution that would nullify the Supreme Judicial Court's decision Wednesday allowing gays and lesbians to wed. The "defense of marriage" bill, Rep. Phil Travis said, also would outlaw civil unions, the marriage-like compromise adopted two years ago by Vermont.

At least eight other constitutional changes were under consideration -- some legalizing civil unions, others strictly defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The state's 160 representatives and 40 senators are set to gather Wednesday for what likely will be a contentious constitutional convention. Despite a succession of Republican governors, Massachusetts has a long, liberal tradition on social issues -- with its predominantly Democratic Legislature often at the forefront.

But the prospect of extending the rights of marriage to same-sex couples is testing the moral and personal convictions of many lawmakers.

"It's a real period of self-examination up here [at the Capitol] today," said Ann C. Dufresne, communications director for Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, a Democrat who was in yet another closed meeting late Thursday.

"We're weighing all the options," Dufresne said.

Sen. Jarrett T. Barrios, another Democrat, said that the caucus consisted of "serious soul-searching and long thought" among colleagues. "People have sort of made their minds up, and I can tell you that it is very divided," Barrios, who supports the court decision and opposes a constitutional amendment, said as he headed home.

House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who opposes gay marriage, wants the court to delay the effective date of its ruling until voters have considered a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as a heterosexual union.

That measure, like the others to be considered Wednesday, wouldn't appear on a ballot until 2006. Without a delay by the court, the Democrat said Thursday, "you would have a period of time of complete legal chaos and confusion about the validity of those relationships."

Throughout the day, outside forces weighed in, many of them faith-based groups decrying the possibility that gays and lesbians may be allowed to marry.

"Legislators must reclaim their appropriate place in debating and enacting laws that address so fundamental a societal building block as recognizing that marriage has been, is and always will be a union between a man and a woman," said Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, head of Boston's Roman Catholic archdiocese.

Sandy Martinez, state chairwoman of Concerned Women for America -- a group that seeks to bring "Christian values to public policy" -- said that as soon as the court ruled that nothing short of full marriage would satisfy the equal-rights provisions of the state constitution, close to 100 delegates from her organization visited lawmakers to urge an immediate vote on an amendment banning same-sex unions.

"Four of us went up to the governor's office and suggested that we just tell the Supreme Judicial Court 'no' -- in the style of Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson," Martinez said. "Tell the court: 'You may think you have done this, but you have overstepped your bounds.' "

Her organization was actually pleased that the court ruling eliminated civil unions as an alternative, Martinez said. "That makes for one less battle that we have to fight, because we oppose civil unions as well."

Polls show Massachusetts residents closely divided on the subject of gay marriage. But the long wait -- a minimum of two years -- required to pass a constitutional amendment could sway voters' opinions, political scientist Lou Dinatale of the University of Massachusetts at Boston said.

The procedure requires that after legislators vote once on any change to the constitution, they must wait one year and then take a second vote. Only a simple legislative majority is required to pass an amendment. Once it is on the ballot, a simple majority of voters would have to approve for it to become law.

One year after the second legislative vote, the matter must be presented to voters as a ballot referendum.

That would provide at least a two-year window in which gays and lesbians could marry before a constitutional amendment could be adopted.

"My bet is when Gomorrah doesn't occur in those two years, people will stop caring about it," Dinatale said. "So I say they should just go ahead and take the vote next Wednesday and get it over with."

Ronald A. Crews, head of the Coalition for Marriage, said Thursday that his consortium had spent weeks meeting with legislators in hopes of delaying implementation of the court decision, which came down in two parts.

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