Massachusetts lawmakers blocked a proposed constitutional amendment Thursday that would have let voters decide whether to ban gay marriage in the only state that allows it.
"In Massachusetts today, the freedom to marry is secure," said a victorious Gov. Deval Patrick, who had lobbied lawmakers up until the final hours Thursday to kill the measure.
The narrow vote was a blow to efforts to reverse the historic court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in the state. More than 8,500 gay couples have married there since it became legal in May 2004.
As the tally was announced, the halls of the Statehouse erupted in applause. The proposal, which sought to change the state's Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, needed 50 votes to advance to the 2008 statewide ballot. It got 45, with 151 lawmakers opposed.
"We're proud of our state today, and we applaud the Legislature for showing that Massachusetts is strongly behind fairness," said Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.
Opponents of gay marriage vowed to press on, but Thursday's defeat after more than three years of sometimes wrenching debate could prove insurmountable. Any effort to mount a new ballot question would take years at a time political support in Massachusetts is swinging firmly behind gay marriage.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney, now running for president, called the vote "a regrettable setback" and said it makes it more important now to pass a national amendment banning gay marriage.
"Marriage is an institution that goes to the heart of our society, and our leaders can no longer abdicate their responsibility," he said.
Battling on both sides of the issue
Raymond Flynn, the former Boston mayor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who was the lead sponsor of the proposed amendment, said the 170,000 Massachusetts residents who signed the petition for the ban "had their vote stolen from them."
The legal fight over gay marriage began in 2001 when seven same-sex couples who had been denied marriage licenses sued in Suffolk Superior Court.
The case reached the state's highest court, which ruled in 2003 that it was unconstitutional to bar gay couples from marriage. It gave the Legislature 180 days to come up with a solution to allow gays to wed. President Bush criticized the decision, but the court was adamant that only full, equal marriage rights would be constitutional.
Outside the Statehouse on Thursday, hundreds of people rallied on both sides of the issue. "We believe it's unconstitutional not to allow people to vote on this," said Rebekah Beliveau, a 24-year-old Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary student who stood with fellow college-age amendment supporters across the street from the Statehouse.
"We're standing up not necessarily on the issue of same-sex marriage, but our right to vote," she said. Advocates said they had gathered 170,000 signatures supporting the amendment; the secretary of state's office accepted 123,000 as valid.
Across the road, gay marriage advocates stood on the front steps of the capital waving signs that read, "Wrong to Vote on Rights" and "All Families Are Equal."
'Being gay is like being left-handed'
Jean Chandler, 62, of Cambridge, came with fellow members of her Baptist church in an effort to rebuff the image that strict followers of the Bible are opposed to gay marriage.
"I think being gay is like being left-handed," Chandler said. "If we decided left-handed people couldn't marry, what kind of society would we be?"
The measure needed 50 votes in two consecutive legislative sessions to advance to the ballot, and it had passed with 62 votes at the end of the last session in January.
On Thursday, in contrast to previous joint sessions, there was no debate. Senate President Therese Murray opened the constitutional convention by calling for a vote, and the session was gaveled to a close immediately afterward.
It was a victory for the state's Democratic leadership, including Patrick, a vocal supporter of gay marriage.
House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, a Democrat from Boston, also worked on lawmakers to get them to oppose the measure, arguing that the rights of a minority group should not be put to a popular vote. Before the session, a handful of lawmakers who had voted in favor of the amendment previously said they were reconsidering their vote.
One lawmakers who previously voted in favor of the amendment, Democratic Rep. Anthony Verga of Gloucester, missed the joint session after injuring himself in a fall the day before.
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute that backed the amendment, said his group was vastly outspent by gay marriage supporters. "It certainly does appear that money speaks in this building," he said.
Mineau pledged to continue fighting but wouldn't commit to presenting another proposed amendment.
"I don't believe it's dead because the people have not had the opportunity to have their vote," he said. "This will not go away until the citizens have their opportunity to decide what the definition of marriage is."