updated 1/2/2007 6:32:03 PM ET 2007-01-02T23:32:03

Lawmakers in Massachusetts, the only state where gay marriage is legal, voted Tuesday to allow a proposed constitutional amendment to move forward that would effectively ban the practice.

Within two hours, they voted to reconsider, but then voted again to uphold their initial decision.

Sixty-one lawmakers voted in favor of advancing the measure, which would appear on the ballot in 2008 and declare marriage to be only between a man and a woman. The proposal still needs approval of the next legislative session.

After the initial vote, gay marriage proponents called for an hour recess.

They returned and voted 117-75 to reconsider the vote after a scolding from one of the Legislature’s most outspoken gay marriage opponents.

Lawmakers later considered the issue a third time, voting 62-134 to advance the amendment to the legislative session.

If it makes it on the ballot and residents approve it, the amendment would leave Massachusetts’ existing same-sex marriages intact but ban any new ones.

For next governor, a ‘question of conscience’
Calling it a “question of conscience,” Gov.-elect Deval Patrick had urged lawmakers not to vote on it Tuesday, which would have effectively killed it.

“I believe that adults should be free to choose whom they wish to love and to marry,” Patrick said shortly before lawmakers were to meet for the final day of their session.

Outside the Statehouse, crowds of gay marriage supporters and opponents waved signs as legislators began arriving.

The amendment’s backers had collected 170,000 signatures to get the amendment on the 2008 ballot, but it still needed the Legislature’s approval.

Last fall, the Legislature angered the amendment’s backers and the governor when it recessed without voting on the issue. Senate President Robert Travaglini didn’t immediately say if he would force a vote Tuesday.

A vote to adjourn the joint constitutional convention without taking up the amendment would kill the measure and put supporters of a ban back to square one.

Patrick, a supporter of gay couples’ right to marriage, met with House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi to lobby against taking an up or down vote on the amendment, which would leave Massachusetts’ existing same-sex marriages intact but ban any more.

“Above all, this is a question of conscience,” Patrick, a Democrat, said in a statement. “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.”

8,000 couples wed since 2003 ruling
About 8,000 same-sex couples have wed in Massachusetts since the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2003 that the state constitution guarantees gays the right to marry. A few other states offer civil unions with similar rights for gay couples, but only Massachusetts allows gay marriage.

Backers of the amendment gathered at the foot of the Statehouse steps Tuesday with signs reading “Let the People Vote.” Many argued it should be up to the people, not the courts, to define something as important as marriage.

“Legislators are sent to Beacon Hill to vote on a matter, not to not vote on a matter,” said amendment backer Paul Ferro, 30, of Norton.

Supporters of gay marriage, who held their own rally across Beacon Street, said the civil rights of a minority should not be put to a popular vote. “Let the people marry,” read one retort.

Some lawmakers have said they wouldn’t vote on the amendment issue because the ballot question would write discrimination into the constitution.

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