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Mass. lawmakers suspend gay marriage debate

Aweary Massachusetts Legislature suspended debate on a proposed gay marriage ban Thursday after two days of tense negotiations and an angry late-evening walkout by dozens of lawmakers chanting “We want a vote.”
Protesters rally outside the Statehouse in Boston Wednesday, as the state Legislature debates a proposal to amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriages.Lisa Poole / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With the nation watching, a weary Massachusetts Legislature suspended debate on a proposed gay marriage ban Thursday after two days of tense negotiations, the slim defeat of three amendments and an angry late-evening walkout by dozens of lawmakers chanting “We want a vote.”

The constitutional convention will resume March 11 when lawmakers will again grapple with the divisive issue that has placed Massachusetts in the national spotlight. Under a ruling by the state’s highest court issued in November, the nation’s first state-sanctioned gay marriages are scheduled to begin taking place across the state in mid-May.

“It has been a struggle for the members, as it is for every citizen,” said House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a Democrat and an ardent opponent of gay marriage. “No one should expect that decisions of this magnitude would be made casually or quickly. Our efforts will continue.”

The adjournment was seen as a victory for gay-rights advocates, who stood vigil outside the House chamber for hours, singing and cheering. They continued to sing “God Bless America” and cheered vigorously when the convention recessed without a vote. During the day, their renditions of the national anthem and chants of “Justice now” could be heard by lawmakers inside.

'Time to sort this out'
“It’s so clear that the legislators need time to think. It’s so clear that they’re exhausted, they’re confused about the amendments, they’re uncertain about the issues and they’re desperately asking time to sort this out,” said Arline Isaacson, co-leader of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

“The democratic process has been stymied,” said Gerald D’Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference. “The people at this point have no way to respond to the (court) decision. We had a lot of people who wanted this Legislature, this convention, to give them something to vote on, and that was marriage between a man and a woman.”

The decision to adjourn at midnight came after more than 17 hours of debate and negotiations over two days that saw three attempts to ban gay marriage voted down. Debate was suspended amid discussion of a fourth attempt at compromise — a measure sponsored by bipartisan House and Senate leaders that would have banned gay marriage but adopted civil unions similar to those in Vermont.

The bipartisan group had predicted that the new mix of words would muster a majority and bring the Statehouse spectacle to an end — but that did not come to pass, as alliances broke down and gay-rights supported used delay tactics to kill time before the Legislature’s mandated midnight adjournment.

One lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Brian A. Joyce, was reading a newspaper article aloud when the brief walkout occurred.

“We should never have politics like that in this state,” said Rep. Philip Travis, a Democrat who sponsored the original gay marriage ban. “They’re called filibusters. They do them in Washington. We don’t do them in Boston. This is a new step in the recorded history of Massachusetts. It’s bad government.”

Although the bipartisan amendment would have made Massachusetts only the second state in the country to approve civil unions, gay-rights advocates fiercely condemned it, arguing it would revert gay people to second-class citizenship after a hard-won court victory.

Scrutiny has been focused on the Massachusetts Legislature since November, when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional to ban gay marriage. Opponents have said they will seek to block gay marriages, when they become legal in mid-May.

Any constitutional amendment must survive a series of votes during this legislative session, and more hurtles in the next two years, before getting to the ballot in November 2006.

Personal tone
The early debate Thursday took on a decidedly personal tone, as several lawmakers shared from their own experiences.

Sen. Jarrett Barrios, the first openly gay lawmaker to speak during the two days of debate and one of the most visible critics of the constitutional ban, choked back tears when he spoke about how an amendment would affect his family. The Democrat and his partner of 10 years have two adopted sons, ages 12 and 7.

“Don’t believe those who tell you that just defining marriage between a man and a woman will not hurt your gay and lesbian friends, your family members, your neighbors and your colleagues, because it will,” Barrios said.

Rep. David Flynn, also a Democrat, told lawmakers that a member of his family was now shunning him because of a vote he made Wednesday in favor of a constitutional ban on gay marriages.

“I lost a member of my family last night because of my vote,” said Flynn, who opposes gay marriage. “And I say to that member of the family, ’I love you, I want you back in the family, but you must understand that I took the oath of this office ... and I’ve always sworn to the rest of you to what you and I think is right, regardless of party, regardless of politics, regardless of religion and regardless of family.”

The most recent effort to change the state constitution has been in the works since last year. But the court’s ruling gave the issue a new sense of urgency, particularly with the prospect of same-sex marriages just around the corner.

If gay marriage takes place in Massachusetts, federal lawsuits would likely ensue as gay couples seek recognition in other states and by the federal government. While state marriages are normally respected in other jurisdictions, 38 states and the federal government have approved laws or amendments barring the recognition of gay marriage.