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Massachusetts Nears Same-Sex Marriage Ban

March 12, 2004|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Legislature moved closer Thursday to adopting a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and establish civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.

Dashing the hopes of same-sex marriage supporters who had hoped to kill the amendment, lawmakers voted just before midnight to keep the bipartisan compromise measure alive.

The 121-77 vote set the stage for the amendment to go to a critical "third reading," which effectively would finalize the measure for the legislative session. But when legislators reconvene March 29 for their next vote, the amendment will likely be burdened by a crush of modifications that could substantially change its meaning.

Addressing same-sex marriage supporters in the Capitol's Great Hall -- a 50-yard-long chamber in which spectators sat for hours on the marble floor to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV -- Marc Solomon of the Massachusetts Freedom to Marry Coalition conceded that the day's voting had been a deep disappointment.

"But we are going to keep this going," Solomon said. "We are going to come back day after day, convention after convention until we have our equal rights."

Even in its final form, the amendment -- which would eliminate marriage privileges granted to gay and lesbian couples by the state's highest court -- is at least two years away from appearing as a ballot initiative.

Under the Supreme Judicial Court ruling that made Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, couples will be eligible to marry as early as May 17.

The latest effort by lawmakers to circumvent that decision makes no provision for what will happen to gay and lesbian couples who marry during what could turn out to be a finite window of legality.

Reconvening Thursday in a joint session known as a constitutional convention, the House and Senate took up a measure dubbed "the leadership amendment" because it was introduced by top-ranking Republicans and Democrats. A similar convention last month ended with legislators deadlocked.

During their four-week recess, lawmakers worked to gain support for an amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman -- but also guaranteeing civil-union status to same-sex couples.

The flurry of lobbying left legislators tense and, in some cases, no closer to resolving what several have called the most important vote of their careers. The polarizing debate about same-sex marriage that surged across the country after the Supreme Judicial Court decision compounded the pressure on state legislators.

More than 3,000 same-sex couples have married in San Francisco since Mayor Gavin Newsom gave his blessing to such unions on Feb. 12. In Multnomah County, Ore., more than 1,000 same-sex couples took out marriage licenses in less than one week after local officials authorized gay and lesbian weddings.

President Bush has called for a constitutional amendment to block gay and lesbian marriage. He used his State of the Union message to denounce court efforts to permit same-sex marriage.

Outside the Boston legislative chamber on Thursday, Gerry D'Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, said: "I have been around here 29 years, and I have never seen anything like this." The lawmakers, he added, "are fatigued, and they are trying to grapple with which direction they are going in."

Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage began milling outside the Capitol about 6 a.m., two hours before the statehouse was scheduled to open and eight hours before lawmakers were to resume their often-heated discussions.

Demonstrators came from as far away as Florida and California, using sidewalks outside the Capitol as a site for shouting matches. Thousands of people on both sides of the issue screamed epithets and slogans, brandishing signs that left little to the imagination.

"I took the red-eye and arrived in Boston at 6 this morning," said Ruben Israel of Whittier. The 42-year-old owner of a construction company carried a poster aimed at same-sex marriage supporters that read "God Abhors You."

"This is what Christians do on vacation," said Israel, who said he bought a plane ticket to Boston because "we don't want their sin to go to Los Angeles. Bad enough that it's in Frisco. We're trying to stop the cancer before it spreads out West."

Standing nearby, Matt Bourgault, an evangelical preacher from Tallahassee, Fla., said he had been speaking out against gay and lesbian marriage at college campuses around the country. He called the prospect of men marrying men, or women marrying women, "a direct, in-your-face offense to God."

Buses carrying protesters on each side of the issue ringed the Boston Common, where revolutionaries have gathered in this city since the 18th century. By 9 a.m., the vast underground garage beneath the common was filled. Police on horseback were poised at the corners of the common, although the crowd remained calm.

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