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Romney, AG take heat on marriage issue

Gay-rights ruling is clear, law groups say

Three bar associations, a former state attorney general, and several gay rights groups assailed Governor Mitt Romney and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly yesterday for saying that the Supreme Judicial Court's landmark gay-marriage ruling was vague enough to allow lawmakers to enact something short of full-fledged marriage for same-sex couples.

In separate interviews and statements, the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts, and James M. Shannon, who served as state attorney general from 1987 to 1991, said that Tuesday's ruling clearly instructs the state to allow same-sex marriage.

"If one reads the majority opinion, it leaves no doubt that what the court decided was that a person choosing another person to marry is a fundamental right," said Richard C. Van Nostrand, president of the 18,500-member Massachusetts Bar Association. Noting that the state bar group had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the gay-marriage case that mirrored the court's ultimate ruling, Van Nostrand said, "I just don't see any room in the opinion for the interpretation that the governor and Attorney General Thomas Reilly espouse."

The criticism by lawyers' groups was issued on the day the Globe published an interview with Reilly, a Democrat, in which he suggested state lawmakers pass a bill that offers same-sex couples full benefits without necessarily allowing them to marry.

Earlier in the week, Romney, a Republican, said he would support extending some benefits to gay couples, but he insisted he would not support gay marriage.

Massachusetts politicians continue to struggle with Tuesday's ruling, which held 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." The SJC stayed the order 180 days "to permit the Legislature to take such action as it may deem appropriate in light of this opinion."

In contrast, The Pilot, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, published an editorial yesterday that called upon all Catholics, "including Catholic legislators," to oppose legal unions between gays.

The Pilot urged legislators to vote for a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to heterosexual unions and to seek an extension to the 180-day deadline set by the SJC. "Massachusetts and national legislators are scrambling to prepare reactions, solutions, or compromises to this ruling," the paper said. "It may be too little, too late. The `wait and see' strategy that politicians have followed for several years has been disastrous."

Among the opponents to Reilly and Romney's positions, it was perhaps predictable that groups such as the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus would decry the stands of Romney and Reilly.

But mainstream legal groups said they, too, were obligated to speak up, accusing the two officials of misinterpreting the ruling.

Renee M. Landers, Boston Bar Association president, issued a statement accusing Romney and Reilly of turning the court's ruling into "a political football."

"Any proposal for anything less than marriage sends the message that gay families are second-class citizens in the eyes of the law," said Landers, speaking for the 9,500-member organization.

"The court found that everyone in Massachusetts has the fundamental right to marry the person he or she chooses," said Gretchen Van Ness, spokeswoman and immediate past president of the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts, which has 1,200 members. "The court did not envision coming up with a second-class remedy."

Shannon, who submitted testimony in the Goodridge v. Department of Health case that led to Tuesday's ruling, accused Romney and Reilly of accepting "separate-but-equal rationalizations" similar to those used to justify racial segregation in this country in the last century.

"Five years from now, we're going to have thousands of same-sex couples in Massachusetts, and those twisting themselves into a pretzel on this decision will find themselves having some explaining to do," Shannon said.

Yesterday, both Reilly and Romney defended their stance on the issue, a position shared by top House lawmaker Eugene L. O'Flaherty, cochairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee and a practicing lawyer.

In a press conference, Reilly avoided using the phrase "gay marriage," insisting that he is "not hung up on terms."

He said the current situation is wrong for gay and lesbian couples, but said it was premature to say the Legislature should create an institution called "gay marriage."

"What I do believe in strongly is fairness, basic fairness," Reilly said, after repeated questions from reporters who asked whether Reilly supports gay marriages or civil unions.

Reilly reasserted points made in an earlier interview with the Globe in which he said that profound social issues should not be decided by the courts.

He argued that the narrow margin of the court's decision is not sufficient to justify altering the institution of marriage.

"This is a 4-to-3 decision, so something as important and significant as this belongs in the Legislature," Reilly said.

Romney's director of communications, Eric Fehrnstrom, said in an interview yesterday that Reilly's interpretation of the ruling has only bolstered the governor's belief that his reading of the lengthy court ruling was accurate.

"Attorney General Reilly is litigation counsel for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," Fehrnstrom said. "As such, his opinion carries significant weight, period. The governor's position is consistent with that of the attorney general."

Fehrnstrom added that the governor's chief counsel, Daniel Winslow, has been talking to his counterparts in the House of Representatives and the Senate to determine how best to proceed.

But supporters of the SJC decision -- such as John N. Affuso, cochairman of the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association -- pointed out that even the dissenting opinions in the ruling appear to acknowledge that the majority opinion ushered in a new era of civil marriage for gays.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Francis X. Spina wrote, "Reduced to its essence, the court's opinion concludes that . . . the State must therefore provide the benefits of civil marriage to same-sex couples just as it does to opposite-sex couples."

Although some extremely vocal critics of the court's ruling are applauding Romney and Reilly's comments, most are working to build support in the Legislature for a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a heterosexual union.

Ronald A. Crews -- president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which has fought to keep marriage for heterosexuals only -- said his primary concern is making sure that the constitutional issue comes up at a joint session of the Legislature on Feb. 11.

"This is a galvanizing issue that we intend to win," Crews said.

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