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Mass. Debate Adjourned, For Now

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Same-sex marriage advocates will use month-long recess to educate legislators

The leader of the battle to defend the Massachusetts high court decision granting same-sex marriage rights conceded that the pro-gay forces did not have sufficient votes in hand last week to guarantee they could stave off a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.

According to Marty Rouse, who heads up MassEquality, an ad hoc coalition of roughly 20 gay, civil rights, and legal groups, opponents of same-sex marriage in the State Legislature failed to pass an amendment only because they could not agree on the appropriate wording to put before the state’s voters.

But Rouse added that time is on the side of same-sex marriage advocates, and the State Legislature, after sitting in a special constitutional convention on February 11 and 12, adjourned the amendment proceedings until March 11.

“At this point, our understanding is that we don’t have the votes to prevent an amendment,” Rouse told Gay City News in a telephone interview on February 17. “But our opposition is not unified in what language they want to go with… Every day that passes gives us more time to make our case.”

Same-sex marriage advocates in the Massachusetts Legislature were less confident than Rouse that the adjournment works to their advantage, but several shared his optimism that their colleagues remained open to their arguments.

“When people started to really consider this for the first time, and recognized that it would not go away, my sense was that more folks began to understand what we were talking about and why,” said Elizabeth Malia, an openly lesbian Democratic representative who represents Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. “‘Now I know what they are talking about… growing old, being alone in a nursing home without their partner.’ Whether that will be enough to kill the amendment in the first part of March, I don’t know. But the level of dialogue has improved.”

“There are perhaps 12 to 15 swing members [in a 200-member legislatur­e],” said Michael Festa, a suburban Melrose Democrat and strong supporter of same-sex marriage, who estimated the pro-amendment group has only a handful of votes more than a majority. “We as colleagues are looking to connect with them to persuade them to go with full opposition to any amendment. Short of that, we are exploring avenues for compromise.”

But compromise was something in short supply last week at the extraordinary constitutional convention, even among those pushing for an amendment, and Rouse flat out said there is no room for compromise.

Supporters of placing an amendment before voters limiting marriage to unions of one man and one woman––an amendment that cannot be voted on until November 2006, two and a half years after same-sex marriages are due to begin this May––have foundered over the question of what to offer gay and lesbian couples by way of compensation for losing the right to marry.

Some legislators, unwilling to support same-sex marriage, nevertheless support extensive partnership rights as were granted under Vermont’s pioneering civil union law in 2000 and want them enacted and defined within the constitutional amendment’s language. But the original amendment language, proposed by Bristol County Democratic Rep. Philip Travis, was agnostic on partnership rights, saying “nothing in this article requires or prohibits civil unions.”

That is the position taken by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who insists that any such question be taken up by the legislature at a later time. But when Thomas Finneran, the powerful Democratic House speaker, offered a substitute to Travis’ proposal, which enabled but did not require the legislature to act on civil unions, along with his promise to hold a vote in the House at a later date, the proposal was defeated 100 to 98.

Brian Lees, the Republican Senate minority leader from Springfield, offered some insight into how hard it might prove for opponents of same-sex marriage to come to agreement on amendment language. Describing himself as a moderate Republican “in the Massachusetts tradition,” Lees said that even while he believes that “the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman ought to be in the constituti­on,” he also thinks that “at some time, this country will move off this issue and be very accepting of gay marriage.” A constitutional amendment would clearly take rights granted by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court away from the gay and lesbian community, in his view, and for that same-sex couples have to be offered something in return.

“If it does go on the ballot, you have to make sure you protect what is already there,” he said, noting that the amendment could be used to challenge existing domestic partnership rights and that some states have begun to move broadly against such rights. “It would be tough for me to bargain away language enacting civil unions in the amendment. I am very strong on civil unions and the rights they grant, so it would be hard to move me, though I am not saying it’s impossible.”

Lees, who says he would like to see any proposed amendment enact civil union rights “stronger than those in Vermont,” insisted he is hopeful of compromise, even as he noted that Republicans in the House are far more conservative than his colleagues in the Senate.

Cognizant that moderates such as Lees were troubled at the prospect of appearing to strip rights away from a class of people, MassEquality’s Rouse said, “The more they think about a compromise, the more they will realize that there is none.”

Festa, from the pro-gay side, said the only compromise he would consider is one that did nothing “in appearance and content to diminish the protections afforded by Goodridge [the court’s same-sex decision.]” The Democrat, while insisting that the word “marriage” must remain attached to same-sex partners’ unions, acknowledged that for many legislators, something must be put in front of the voters. He said he might be open to an amendment that affirms the high court ruling, even while delineating its parameters––spelling out, for example, that marriages consist of only two people or that no church would be required to perform a specific marriage ceremony. In that way, Festa said, the right wing’s “bluff” could be called on its most dire warnings without limiting gay and lesbian couples’ rights.

Asked about the possibility of such a compromise to win over wavering legislators, Malia expressed fear that any amendment that puts policy prescriptions into the constitution would merely invite further tinkering.

“Sure as day follows night, the right will try again and again and again,” she said. “You create a precedent––and nowadays it’s not so hard to get an initiative going to put something on the ballot.”

The efforts on the right are being led by a group called the Coalition for Marriage, run out of the Massachusetts Family Institute (FMI), which describes itself as a nonpartisan public policy organization founded in 1991 to affirm Judeo-Christian principles. Though FMI’s president, Ron Crews, has been extensively quoted in the mainstream press, a call to the group was referred to Genevieve Wood, a top official at the anti-gay Family Research Council in Washington. Wood did not return a call seeking comment.

For more information about the effort to protect the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, or to support the effort, visit massequality.org.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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