Massachusetts lawmakers postpone vote on amendment overturning same-sex marriage until Nov. 9, two days after fall elections
BOSTON Dozens of people on both sides of the gay marriage debate rallied Wednesday outside the Statehouse, where lawmakers were set to weigh a an amendment to the state Constitution that would define marriage as the union of a man and woman.
“I think this is an issue for the people to decide,” said Jonathan Gal, 39, of Lexington, wearing a sticker that said “Support One Man, One Woman.” “I don’t like the way this is being imposed on us by a small minority, the courts and the Legislature.”
Across the street, supporters of same-sex unions cast the issue as one of civil rights.
“When does civil rights get put on the ballot for everyone to vote on?” said Jim Singletary, 44, of Salem, who married his longtime partner, Jim Maynard, last year.
Added Maynard, “This is for fairness for my family.”
The goal of the Massachusetts amendment, which supporters hope to put on the 2008 ballot, would be to block future gay marriages in the state. More than 8,000 same-sex couples have taken vows since gay marriages began in May 2004.
But lawmakers adjourned the constitutional convention before taking up the amendment on same-sex unions. Several other amendments were considered during the four-hour session.
The convention will resume Nov. 9, two days after the fall elections, ensuring that marriage rights will remain a campaign issue for the next four months.
The amendment needed only 50 out of 200 votes in order to advance to a second vote in the 2007-08 session. If the amendment is ultimately ratified, it would mean the end of same-sex marriage in the Bay State, although thousands of married gay and lesbian couples would remain legally wed.
Observers speculated that the marriage supporters would attempt to derail the vote through procedural tactics. This analysis was encouraged by silence from powerful Senate President, Robert Travaglini, who would have to cooperate for most strategies to be successful.
But on Tuesday, Travaglini said he was committed to allowing the convention to take an up-or-down vote on the amendment. He also noted that since the amendment was last on the list of 20 agenda items, there was a chance the lawmakers would not reach it before the day was out.
And that’s what happened Wednesday. Instead of pushing through the schedule and working late, lawmakers debated other matters for four hours and then voted 100 to 91 to recess until the fall.
Amendment backers were not happy with the delay.
“It’s a travesty,” Lisa Barstow of voteonmarriage.org told the New York Times. “Whenever the people want their voices heard, the legislature stalls, delays or sends to the political graveyard whatever citizens are asking to be heard about.”
But the extra months give marriage advocates on both sides of the question more time to lobby the Legislature and consider various strategies for killing or advancing the amendment.
The debate came less than a week after New York’s highest court rejected same-sex couples’ bid to win marriage rights. And Georgia’s high court reinstated that state’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Supporters of the constitutional amendment in Massachusetts got a boost this week from an unlikely ally the Supreme Judicial Court, the same court that handed down the historic ruling legalizing gay marriage.
On Monday, the court ruled that the proposed amendment could go forward, provided it cleared the remaining legislative hurdles. Gay marriage supporters had sued to block the question.
The only thing now standing in the way of the proposed amendment is the Democratic-controlled Legislature. The ballot question must twice win the backing of a quarter or 50 of Massachusetts’ 200 lawmakers, during the current session and again during the 2007-08 session starting in January.
“There is tremendous momentum going our way,” said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, who helped collect thousands of signatures for the proposed amendment. “The court has followed the Constitution, now is the time for the Legislature to follow the Constitution.”
Mineau said he’s confident that he has more than the 50 votes needed to push the question to the next legislative session. Most gay marriage supporters concede they don’t have the votes to block it now.
“At the moment they would prevail, but with time we believe we can turn more and more votes,” said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. “With each passing week we have more votes.”
Some gay activists have urged sympathetic lawmakers to use any tactic they could to block the amendment, including adjourning the constitutional convention without ever taking a vote.
Gov. Mitt Romney, a gay marriage opponent and possible Republican presidential candidate in 2008, has warned against the maneuver. He said lawmakers should put the amendment on the ballot.
This is not the first time Massachusetts lawmakers have been confronted with the issue. In 2002 opponents of gay marriage tried to place a similar constitutional amendment on the ballot, but lawmakers voted to adjourn rather than vote on the issue.
Lawmakers again addressed the issue after the Supreme Judicial Court’s 2003 ruling affirming gays’ right to marry. The Legislature approved a proposed amendment banning gay marriage and legalizing Vermont-style civil unions. They later reversed themselves, killing the amendment.
Gay activists say same-sex marriage is a civil right for a minority group, much like the integration battles of the 1950s and 60s, and should not be left up to the whims of the majority. Gay marriage foes argue that in a democracy, the voters should have the last say on a question as central as the definition of marriage not a one-judge majority on a unelected court.
The Supreme Judicial Court’s November 2003 ruling upholding same-sex marriage had the backing of four justices. Three voted against it.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, July 14, 2006.