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Initiative Would Overturn Same-Sex Marriage in Massachusetts

A proposed amendment is called `a real threat' in the only state where such unions are legal.

July 10, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — On the heels of legal setbacks for same-sex marriage in two states, a proposed constitutional amendment that could derail the practice is under consideration in the only state where such unions are legal.

In a special joint session Wednesday, Massachusetts lawmakers will take up a citizens' initiative aimed at limiting marriage to unions between one man and one woman. The proposal has supporters of same-sex marriage worried -- particularly after court rulings last week against gay and lesbian marriage in New York and Georgia.

"It's a real threat -- very real, frighteningly real," said Arline Isaacson, co-director of the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus in Boston.

The measure has won strong endorsements from Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican who is exploring a 2008 presidential bid, as well as Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley and the state's three other Roman Catholic bishops.

"The proposed addition to our state constitution ... is not extreme, bigoted or religiously sectarian," the four bishops declared in a statement last week. "An exaggerated sense of entitlement is eroding the right of society to have a strong institution of marriage."

But in an ad set to run in the Boston Globe today, 165 prominent business and civic leaders will urge Massachusetts lawmakers not to ban same-sex marriage. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has lent his name to the ad, as have New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his wife, Myra.

Same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in May 2004, after a one-vote majority decision by the state's highest court six months earlier. The landmark case, Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health, was brought by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) on behalf of seven same-sex couples who had unsuccessfully sought marriage licenses.

More than 8,000 gay and lesbian couples have traded vows since then.

A constitutional amendment introduced in 2004 sought to prohibit such marriage but permit same-sex civil unions. That bill died in the Legislature.

The new proposal is narrower, strictly defining marriage as a heterosexual institution and leaving no room for civil unions.

To qualify for a potential spot in a general election, the citizens' petition needed 66,000 signatures. Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said, "We gathered 170,000 names -- the greatest signature drive in the history of the commonwealth."

Under Massachusetts' Constitution -- the oldest in the country -- an amendment must win two separate votes in two consecutive legislative sessions before it can face the full electorate.

Amendments are considered at a special joint session known formally as a constitutional convention, and widely referred to as the "con-con."

The earliest voters could weigh in on the new amendment would be November 2008.

Only 25% of House and Senate members need to vote in favor of the bill to keep it alive. Mineau said he was positive the amendment would pass its first legislative hurdle.

Carisa Cunningham, spokesperson for GLAD, said the faction opposing same-sex marriage had staged a strategic coup by packaging their position as an opportunity to let voters weigh in on the definition of marriage.

"Politically, it is very difficult to fight this very simple idea of 'Let the people vote,' which is the slogan the other side is marketing," Cunningham said.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., Focus on the Family spokeswoman Carrie Gordon Earll said, "People resent the fact that they are experiencing court-ordered social policy." She said the amendment process in Massachusetts would be closely watched.

Twenty states have passed constitutional amendments to classify marriage as a union between a man and a woman, she noted.

Eighteen are working toward constitutional amendments by 2008, according to Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

Isaacson said the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus had lobbied "like crazy" in recent weeks but still lacked the votes to block the amendment.

"We need to get three-quarters of the Legislature to side with us," she said.

"We certainly have a solid majority, but we do not yet have three-quarters. That is a really high hurdle."

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