After more than six hours of emotional debate, the Massachusetts Legislature yesterday wound up divided over the future of gay marriage in the state and made plans to return at noon today to take up a proposal to authorize civil unions for same sex couples.
Lawmakers, meeting in a constitutional convention, rejected two proposed amendments yesterday that would have asked voters to ban same-sex marriages in 2006. One of the proposals would have permitted the Legislature to consider authorizing civil unions in the future; the other would have mandated authorization of civil unions.
"We're as divided as the Supreme Judicial Court. We're as divided as the people of Massachusetts," House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, a Democrat, told reporters. "We are as divided as the nation on this. We are doing the best we can. We are human beings. We struggle. Sometimes we come up short."
Last night House and Senate lawmakers defeated, on a 104-94 vote, a bipartisan Senate compromise that would have banned same-sex marriages, created civil unions, and reclassified as civil unions any gay marriages that occurred between May and 2006.
Hours earlier, the lawmakers narrowly defeated a surprise proposal by Finneran, a strong opponent of gay marriage, that would have barred gay marriage, and permitted, but not required, authorization of civil unions.
The defeats mean that the House and Senate will return for a second day of their historic session, as the lawmakers try to undo the Supreme Judicial Court's decision that would make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to allow gay marriage. The ruling says that gay couples can get marriage licenses beginning May 17, but the lawmakers and Governor Mitt Romney are intent on turning them back.
Senator Brian P. Lees, the Senate Republican leader, said: "I believe that the Supreme Court overstretched." Yesterday, political strategists closely followed the process. GOP sources said Darrell Crate, the state Republican chairman, met with Romney aides and visited with GOP lawmakers to lobby for Finneran's proposal and against the Senate initiative that would have authorized civil unions.Romney praised the legislative efforts saying he had been "working with legislators who I think I can have influence with to describe my view."
In yesterday's debate, opponents of the proposed constitutional amendments cited their personal experiences and the equal rights guaranteed in the constitution. Senator Dianne Wilkerson recalled growing up black in Arkansas, where the public hospital did not allow her mother to deliver her children.
"I know the pain of being less than equal and I cannot and will not impose that status on anyone else," a teary-eyed Wilkerson said. "I was but one generation removed from an existence in slavery. I could not in good conscience ever vote to send anyone to that place from which my family fled."
Supporters of a gay marriage ban said voters should have a chance to protect what Romney described as 3,000 years of traditional marriage between men and women. If lawmakers approve a proposed amendment, it would have to clear the Legislature once more next year before appearing on the November 2006 ballot.
"Mother Nature left her blueprint behind and she left it in DNA, a man and a woman," said Representative Marie Parente, a Milford Democrat. "I didn't create that combination, Mother Nature did."
Yesterday's Senate initiative, sponsored by Lees and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, died despite a last-minute gambit on the part of those who back gay marriage. They urged gay marriage supporters to back Lees's approach in hopes of derailing other proposals that they saw as more egregious.
"It was a last-minute change in strategy," said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Political Caucus. "When we realized supporting the Senate initiative was the only way to block far worse amendments from passing, we then asked to support it as a substitute but not to place it on the ballot."
The maneuver came close to succeeding, but in the end, met the same fate as Finneran's proposal. The gay activists also were strongly opposed to the Senate provision that would have retroactively reclassified same-sex marriages.
Finneran and his leadership team are expected to try to rally support for a new amendment -- pushed by state Representative John Rogers, a Norwood Democrat and close ally of the speaker -- that surfaced last night. It is almost identical to the Senate proposal that was killed yesterday.
Legislators will probably also consider an amendment sponsored by Representative Philip Travis, a Rehoboth Democrat, which would ban gay marriage and make no provisions for civil unions.
"We are going to have a very hard day tomorrow. These votes are very close and we are very concerned that legislators will take our rights away. It is increasingly clear they will vote to add discrimination to the constitution," Isaacson said. The session was drawing nationwide attention. "It's no secret the White House has an interest in the outcome of the debate," one senior GOP aide said last night. The national GOP hopes to use the gay marriage issue against US Senator John F. Kerry, who opposes same-sex marriage but supports civil unions. Kerry has not taken a stand on any of the proposed state amendments.
Gay marriage opponents held out hope that the votes yesterday will bring them some victory today when the House and Senate take up the Travis amendment.
"It is not over yet," said Ronald A. Crews, spokesman for the Coalition for Marriage. "This means the Travis amendment is still alive and we'll be pushing very hard for that tomorrow."
The battle over the amendments frayed some longstanding alliances including the relationship between Finneran and Travaglini, who clashed over the speaker's tactics. And Romney undercut Lees, a frequent ally, over the Senate proposal.
As lawmakers debated in the House chamber, more than 5,000 opponents and advocates of gay marriage gathered in and around the State House, chanting, waving placards, and hoping to affect the outcome of one of the most dramatic and divisive attempts to change the 224-year state constitution.
The pressure on legislators was intense. "Nothing has matched this," said Representative David L. Flynn, 71, a Democrat from East Bridgewater and the oldest serving member of the Legislature, referring to the avalanche of e-mails, phone calls, and letters he has received. "This is the number one firestorm by far."
The vote on the Senate measure, came after Finneran, a strong opponent of gay marriage and civil unions, yesterday came within a few votes of winning approval for his last-second plan. With a push from Romney, 22 Republicans joined Finneran, but he fell short when two of his top lieutenants, majority leader Salvatore DiMasi of the North End and Lida Harkins of Needham, voted against him.After an often contentious debate, the House and Senate, rejected by a 100-98 vote Finneran's amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman and stated that the Legislature "may enact" civil union laws "as may be defined by the General Court from time to time." Romney, who watched the convention on television in his office down the hallway, sent a personal note to Finneran in the House chamber, offering his support of his proposal. He also went to the front door of the chamber and to round up House minority leader Bradley Jones and his GOP colleagues to get behind Finneran's plan. Romney, who backs the anti-gay marriage amendment, opposes civil unions, but says he wants to create domestic partner benefits for gay couples.
Finneran's move -- which blindslided many of his colleagues and activists on both sides -- created a combative mood at the onset of the convention. Travaglini and Lees had planned to start off the convention with their bipartisan Senate amendment
"I suppose all's fair in love and war, and from his perspective, maybe this was all-out war," Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Democrat from Milton, said after the Finneran amendment was defeated.