NEW YORK — Massachusetts state legislators on Tuesday took a first step toward arranging a ballot initiative against same-sex marriage, raising the possibility that gay marriage could be phased out in the single state that allows it.
Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, called the vote "potentially devastatingly bad news." It is essential, she said, to defeat the initiative before it progresses to a popular vote in 2008.
In the 50-state battle over same-sex marriage, Massachusetts is "the beachhead" and bears enormous symbolic weight, Isaacson said. "If we don't save marriage equality here, we may well be doomed to not have it anywhere," she said.
Massachusetts has allowed same-sex couples to marry since 2004. Republican Gov. Mitt Romney ordered town clerks to begin issuing licenses to comply with a decision of the state's Supreme Judicial Court, which found that it was unconstitutional to limit marriage to heterosexuals.
Opponents have sought a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. They collected more than 170,000 signatures -- more than the number required to submit the question for inclusion on ballots.
But many state legislators resisted the idea, arguing that a referendum on same-sex marriage would hurt the state. Massachusetts' initiative process requires at least a quarter of state legislators to approve the ballot question in two consecutive sessions. Last fall, the Legislature voted to adjourn the session without voting on the same-sex marriage initiative, effectively killing it.
The stalling tactic angered Romney, a same-sex marriage opponent, who joined in a lawsuit against the legislators. Then, last week, the Supreme Judicial Court weighed in with a scathing judgment that said: "Those members who seek to avoid their lawful obligations.... ultimately will have to answer to the people who elected them."
Isaacson said the ruling shook lawmakers who were prepared to defeat the initiative with another delay. Instead, they convened for a final, tumultuous day of political brinksmanship. In a morning vote, the initiative won the support of 61 lawmakers -- more than the 50 they needed. But the vote was suddenly cast into question when a member proposed a reconsideration. Hours later, a second vote on the issue won 62 votes, with 134 lawmakers opposing it.
A quarter of the legislature will have to approve the measure again in the next session in order for it to appear on the 2008 ballot.
When the result was announced, same-sex marriage advocates "struggled mightily not to lose their cool and break into tears," Isaacson said.
"We have to fight and find a way to win next year, because it's too important, not just to the Massachusetts gay community but to gay folks all over the country," she said.
Lisa Barstow of VoteOnMarriage.org, which proposed the initiative, said she was "thrilled" at the outcome after an exhausting day.
"It's unfortunate that citizen initiative petitions have to go through hell and high water to advance, but at the end of the day we say that democracy was served," she said. She said she expected the initiative to pass again next year, "hopefully with a little less angst."
But it also was clear that more resistance awaits. Hours before the vote, incoming Gov. Deval Patrick called the ballot measure "irresponsible and wrong."
"This is a question of conscience," said Patrick, a Democrat who will be sworn in Thursday. "Using the initiative process to give a minority fewer freedoms than the majority, and to inject the state into fundamentally private affairs, is a dangerous precedent, and an unworthy one for this commonwealth."
Since the Massachusetts high court decision set off a national debate over same-sex marriage in 2003, voters in 26 states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.
Only once -- in Arizona in November -- have voters rejected a ballot initiative to prohibit same-sex marriage.
No other state has allowed gay couples to marry, though Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut allow civil unions, and California's domestic partnership law guarantees many of the rights of marriage.
Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College, said the ruling on same-sex marriage might have caused upheaval elsewhere, but it "passed over pretty quickly" in Massachusetts.