IMAGE: GAY MARRIAGE DEMONSTRATORS AT THE MASSACHUSETTS STATEHOUSE
Patricia Mcdonnell  /  AP
Demonstrators for and against same-sex marriage hold signs Thursday on the steps of the Statehouse in Boston.
updated 3/11/2004 6:01:06 PM ET 2004-03-11T23:01:06

Massachusetts lawmakers Thursday gave preliminary approval to a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage but allow civil unions.

The amendment, which would strip gay couples of their court-granted marriage rights, must still weather several additional votes and anticipated legislative maneuvering by opponents.

The earliest a ban could end up on a statewide ballot is November 2006, more than two years after same-sex couples can start getting married in Massachusetts.

The state's lawmakers had reconvened to consider banning gay marriage, part of the debate that has been overtaken by a flurry of same-sex weddings around the country in recent weeks. Hundreds of advocates prayed, chanted and sang outside the Statehouse as the lawmakers debated the issue early in the day.

After failing to reach consensus last month on three other versions of a constitutional ban, the Legislature returned to take up a new compromise proposal that would ban gay marriage but allow civil unions.

Time limit arouses ire
Lawmakers imposed a time limit on the debate, which did not sit well with some lawmakers.

“We’re going to limit debate at a constitutional convention with the whole country watching us? I can’t believe it,” said Rep. George Peterson, a Republican who supports a gay marriage ban.

“The fact that this is the first place — the first test is always the most important,” said Rep. Liz Malia, D-Boston, one of three openly gay state legislators.

By 6 a.m. Thursday, hundreds of people stood at the Statehouse entrance and others chanted, waved flags and sang Gospel music on the sidewalks. 

“If we as a state can take a stand for marriage as it has always been defined in public policy, then I believe that can send a signal across the country that even liberal Massachusetts is holding the line,” said Ron Crews, head of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which has been leading the opposition to same-sex marriages.

Agreement eluded lawmakers last month
Lawmakers failed last month to agree on a proposed amendment that would ban same-sex gay marriage but allow civil unions, and that compromise — deemed not good enough by many on both sides — was again in play.

Nationwide, much has developed since last month’s deadlock. In February, the city of San Francisco started issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, a legally questionable move that was soon followed by other U.S. cities. Late Thursday, the California Supreme Court issued a stay on same-sex marriage licenses.

As thousands of couples rushed to wed, President Bush urged Congress to move swiftly to enact a federal ban on same-sex marriages.

But nowhere have lawmakers been faced with a message as strong as the one Massachusetts’ highest court sent in November.

“This is the first state where the legality is clear,” said Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, a lawyer who supports same-sex marriage.

The court’s order sparked a legislative scramble to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriages. But the earliest the constitution could be amended is 2006.

Lawmakers’ action faces long road
Whatever action lawmakers take should not bear too much weight nationwide because it still must clear several legislative hurdles before reaching the state’s voters, said Arline Isaacson, co-chairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

“So for at least 2½ years, gay people will be able to marry, and that’s what has upset non-Massachusetts folks the most,” Isaacson said.

Reaching any accord has been difficult, with lawmakers as divided as the public on an issue that is inextricably linked to tradition, religion and sexuality. Lawmakers suspended their last constitutional convention Feb. 12 after two days of emotional debate ended with three failed attempts to pass a proposed ban.

As the behind-closed-doors maneuvering continued up to Thursday’s debate, two small groups — usually powerless and sitting on opposite political poles — suddenly found themselves with strong voices.

The liberal “progressive” faction, accustomed to making futile speeches for higher taxes and more social spending, met Wednesday to determine how to best use its bloc of votes: Should they support the current proposed amendment to legalize civil unions as the better of two evils? Oppose it because of the same-sex marriage ban it includes? Or vote strategically, supporting it to move the process along, only to withdraw their support when the final vote arrives?

Republicans could be a key bloc
House Republicans, meanwhile, who hold 23 seats in the 160-member chamber, also could deliver a powerful bloc. Most voted against a proposal similar to the one currently before the Legislature, helping to derail it.

“Given the difficulty of this issue, groups that traditionally have had limited power because of their small numbers suddenly loom large as a bloc when trying to cobble together a majority,” said Michael Widmer, leader of the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation. “When every vote is so hard-fought, it makes them unusually powerful.”

While House Speaker Thomas Finneran and Senate President Robert Travaglini continue to predict that a new version will pass, others say the number of competing factions within the Legislature leaves the outcome uncertain.

“There are splits everywhere. There are splits among the progressives, the moderates, our opponents,” Isaacson said.

‘A very volatile issue’
Even Finneran and Travaglini, both Democrats, acknowledged that anything was possible.

“Obviously it’s a very volatile issue,” Finneran said between meetings in Washington. “We are working it. We feel as if we’re making progress, but it’s far too early to say anything.”

While there was growing speculation that a combination of fatigue and pragmatism would lead to compromise, legislators said they learned one important lesson from round one of the debate — that nothing was predictable.

“There’s still a lot of intrigue out there. There’s still a lot of questions,” said Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees, a Republican whose name is on the current amendment.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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