Gay marriage roils aisles in Mass.

Beacon Hill lawmakers confronted by clamor and firm convictions

February 06, 2004|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BOSTON - One day after the state supreme court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to marry, Beacon Hill was in a frenzy yesterday with Massachusetts lawmakers meeting in emergency session and lobbyists of fiercely divergent views trying to influence the debate.

One prominent Democrat vowed to introduce an amendment to the state constitution that would nullify the Supreme Judicial Court's decision Wednesday allowing gays and lesbians to wed. The "defense of marriage" bill, Rep. Phil Travis said, also would outlaw civil unions, the marriage-like compromise adopted two years ago by Vermont.

At least eight other constitutional changes were under consideration, some legalizing civil unions and others strictly defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The state's 160 representatives and 40 senators are set to gather next week for what likely will be a contentious constitutional convention. Despite a succession of Republican governors, Massachusetts has a long, liberal tradition on social issues with its predominantly Democratic Legislature often at the forefront.

But the prospect of extending the rights of marriage to same-sex couples is testing the moral and personal convictions of many at the Capitol.

"It's a real period of self-examination up here today," said Ann C. Dufresne, communications director for Senate President Robert Travaligni, a Democrat who was in yet another closed meeting last night. "We're weighing all the options."

Sen. Jarrett Barrios, another Democrat, said that the caucus consisted of "serious soul-searching and long thought" among colleagues. "People have sort of made their minds up, and I can tell you that it is very divided," said Barrios, a supporter of the court's decision.

Throughout the day, outside forces weighed in, many of them faith-based groups decrying the possibility that gays and lesbians may be allowed to marry.

"Legislators must reclaim their appropriate place in debating and enacting laws that address so fundamental a societal building block as recognizing that marriage has been, is and always will be a union between a man and a woman," said Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, head of Boston's Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

Sandy Martinez, chairwoman of Concerned Women of America - a group that seeks to bring "Christian values to public policy" - said that as soon as the court ruled, close to 100 delegates from her organization visited lawmakers to urge an immediate vote on an amendment banning same-sex unions.

Polls show Massachusetts residents are closely divided on the subject of gay marriage. But the long wait - a minimum of two years - required to pass a constitutional amendment could sway voters' opinions, according to political scientist Lou Dinatale of the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

The procedure requires that after legislators vote once on any change to the constitution, they must wait one year and then take a second vote. Only a simple majority is required to pass an amendment. One year after the second legislative vote, the matter must be presented to voters as a ballot referendum.

"My bet is when Gomorrah doesn't occur in those two years, people will stop caring about it," Dinatale said. "So I say they should just go ahead and take the vote next Wednesday and get it over with."

Ronald A. Crews, head of the Coalition for Marriage, said yesterday that his consortium had spent weeks meeting with legislators in hopes of delaying implementation of the court decision.

"It is very clear that we are talking only about the institution of [heterosexual] marriage and whether this Legislature is going to defend marriage," Crews said.

But Karen Malme said she too had gone to Beacon Hill this week to talk to lawmakers about marriage, "and to make sure this whole amendment thing doesn't happen." Malme, a clown at Children's Hospital here who also performs in gay educational shows, said she and her partner, Meg Stone, are eager to be part of the first wave of same-sex couples to marry in Massachusetts.

"Who knew this would happen in my lifetime?" said Malme, 38. "I'm so excited, and I'm trying to think positively. But there is this sense that it could be taken away. In 2006, if this amendment goes through and all of us have gotten married, what are they going to do? Say it is null and void? And then do we all become divorced? That is kind of a frightening concept."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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