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JOAN VENNOCHI

Legislator feels the heat on gay marriage

SHE IS passionately prolife. That is not enough for the Roman Catholic Church, which wants her to be passionately against something else: gay marriage.

 

Marian Walsh, state senator from the Boston neighborhood of West Roxbury, says she is stunned by the intensity of church advocacy on a controversial issue that once again sets Massachusetts dramatically apart from the rest of the nation, the court-ordered acceptance of same-sex marriage.

"This is the most intense outreach by the church to the Legislature that I have ever seen. It is absolutely stunning," says Walsh, a lifelong Catholic, a lawyer, and a graduate of Harvard's Divinity School. "I really wish I had seen a fraction of this vigor when it came to the protection of children."

Last November, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded in a 4-3 landmark decision that "barring an individual from the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution." In an advisory opinion issued yesterday, the SJC ruled that only full, equal marriage rights for gay couples -- not civil unions -- meet the edict of its November decision.

The rulings from this state's highest court hold tremendous implications, personal and political, from Massachusetts to Washington and across the country. They could rock the 2004 presidential campaign, providing an opening for Republicans to undermine Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, should he become the Democratic nominee.

Here in Massachusetts, aggressive political maneuvering is already underway. Opposition to the court ruling is fueled by the Archdiocese of Boston and its new Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley. "Our obligation is to stand up for marriage, for families," O'Malley recently told the Globe. As defined by the Catholic Church, standing up for the "common good" means opposing same-sex marriage.

The court issued its advisory opinion in response to a request from the state Senate about whether Vermont-style civil unions, which convey the benefits -- but not the title of marriage -- would meet constitutional muster. That was the compromise position many lawmakers, including Walsh, hoped to embrace, but the court rejected it. Allowing civil unions but not marriage produces "unconstitutional, inferior, and discriminatory status for same-sex couples," the court said in the advisory opinion.

This latest opinion now sets the stage for a Constitutional Convention scheduled for Feb. 11, during which legislators are expected to consider an amendment that would legally define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The church is lobbying laypeople and legislators to support such a provision.

One million Massachusetts households received mailings urging people to speak out in favor of the proposed amendment. And, as Walsh tells it, state lawmakers are being inundated by messages from those in opposition to gay marriage, some sent directly by the archdiocese. Priests she knows as friends and neighbors are being asked to contact her. She finds the extent of the effort perplexing: "The intensity, I really believe is to create a distraction from the sex scandal and closing of parishes," she says, referring to the clergy sexual abuse crisis that began in Boston two years ago and its aftermath.

Where was the Catholic Church, asks Walsh, when she took stands for social justice and against corporate welfare? "There was never this kind of outreach to me on the death penalty, even on abortion." Indeed, the first time she tried to get Cardinal Bernard Law to testify against the death penalty at a legislative hearing, she was told he did not want to ruffle prominent Catholics who support it.

Walsh, 49, reflects a classic Boston Irish Catholic upbringing. She grew up in West Roxbury and attended Ursuline Academy and Newton College of the Sacred Heart. She was first elected to the Legislature in 1989. Being a prolife woman Democrat is not easy in Massachusetts; liberal advocates who scorned her and would not support her for leadership positions because of her opposition to abortion are courting her support on gay marriage.

Walsh says she is relieved by the court's clarifying opinion: "Now we either vote to take the right away or allow the right to stand. Now that's the issue before us."

She will cast her vote on the basis of what she thinks is the right thing to do -- not on the basis of what the Catholic Church tells her is the right thing to do.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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Gay population
The 2000 Census estimated there were about 19,000 gay couples in Mass., and about 659,000 nationwide, or less than 1 percent of households. Provincetown is the community in Mass. with the highest rate of gay partners, about 15 percent of households.
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