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Gridlock in marriage debate

Deeply split Mass. Legislature to reconvene in March session

The state's historic court decision declaring same-sex marriages legal was left intact last night, after a deeply divided Massachusetts Legislature was forced to adjourn its constitutional convention without passing a ban on gay marriage. Legislators scheduled their next convention session for March 11.

With gay marriage opponents chanting "we want a vote," and gay-marriage supporters singing "God Bless America" in the hallways, the chaotic session ended at midnight. Lawmakers were unable to find a majority to support any of four measures designed to overturn the historic November ruling of the Supreme Judicial Court declaring gay marriage constitutional.

Shortly after 10 p.m., supporters of gay marriage staged a filibuster designed to delay the proceedings until the midnight deadline for the session. Their opponents responded by walking out to focus public attention on what was happening and force a vote, but Senate President Robert E. Travaglini allowed the filibuster to continue, by recognizing only lawmakers who opposed a ban on gay marriage to speak until midnight arrived.

Earlier, the Legislature had defeated a proposed constitutional amendment sponsored by Representative Philip Travis that would have banned gay marriage.

Gay-rights advocates applauded the day's events, saying they had succeeded for the moment in their task of keeping any measure that would deny rights to gays and lesbians out of the state constitution.

"We have managed so far to dodge several bullets," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Political Caucus. "We've made it through one more day."

In two days of a constitutional convention, stark divisions in the House and Senate among members of both parties made compromise impossible, despite deep discomfort among many lawmakers toward gay marriage. Their unrealized goal was to pass a proposed constitutional amendment declaring marriage solely the union of a man and a woman and eventually get it on the November 2006 state-wide ballot. Most versions under consideration this week also called for or suggested civil unions for gay couples.

One faction of lawmakers, including Governor Mitt Romney and the House Republicans who have been following his lead, is strongly opposed to gay marriage and any measures that establish civil unions for gay couples. A smaller group of ardent gay-marriage supporters resisted supporting any measure that banned gay marriages, even if the proposal included civil unions.

Most lawmakers were caught somewhere in between, but even Travaglini and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran couldn't deliver blocs of votes in the highly charged environment of the House chamber Wednesday and yesterday. Three proposals were narrowly defeated, and another, co-authored by Finneran and Travaglini, never came to a vote.

That measure would ban gay marriage and establish civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. It is expected to be among the proposals on the agenda when the Legislature again meets in constitutional convention March 11.

Late last night, Finneran issued a statement: "No one should expect that decisions of this magnitude would be made casually or quickly. Our efforts will continue."

Gay-marriage opponents watched the closing moments of the convention in disgust. Lawmakers ran out the clock with Representative Kathleen M. Teahan telling colleagues that the day was the 33d anniversary of her marriage to her late husband.

Earlier, Travis and the Coalition for Marriage pushed for their amendment.

Travis warned his colleagues that if they deny voters the ability to decide the fate of gay marriage, the lawmakers will feel the backlash in this fall's elections. His amendment failed on a 103-94 vote yesterday.

"You will not escape the wrath of the general public," Travis said. "You will be held responsible. You will have to answer to the electorate who sent you here."

Romney went home to watch the convention on television well before the session devolved into a chaotic spectacle. But aides said the Republican executive had faith that, eventually, lawmakers would find common ground and push through an amendment.

"The governor understands that democracy is a messy business," said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director. "But he's confident that ultimately, the constitutional convention will produce an amendment that can go before the people."

This week's debate in the Legislature drew national attention because of the SJC ruling, which would make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to allow gay couples to marry. Reverberations from that ruling are being felt throughout the country. Just yesterday, city officials in San Francisco married a lesbian couple and said they would continue to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

A pair of amendments offered Wednesday failed narrowly to draw a majority of lawmakers. As yesterday's debate dragged on, it looked increasingly likely that no amendment could do so. Yesterday, as they waited for legislators to hash out the day's final compromise amendment, activists from both sides seemed exhausted, their faces red.

By nightfall, the crowd of activists supporting same sex marriage had swelled, and the third floor was hot. Holding US and rainbow flags, they sang "We Shall Not Be Moved," and chanted "Separate is not Equal" in perfect unison.

Behind the scenes, Finneran and Travaglini spent much of the day yesterday trying to fashion a compromise, working through a series of phone calls and meetings among aides and top lawmakers. It was a case of unusual alliances: A day earlier, their relationship seemed strained like never before, after Finneran surprised Travaglini by offering his amendment on the House floor, when Travaglini had recognized him solely to make a speech.

On Wednesday, Finneran and Romney worked in close tandem, falling just two votes short. But yesterday, Finneran and Travaglini joined forces -- with Romney and the House Republicans who were following his lead left out.

Yesterday's debate brought passionate speeches from both sides of the gay marriage debate. Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, Democrat of Newton, likened efforts to ban gay marriage to restrictions against Jews in Nazi Germany, and Representative Rachel Kaprielian, Democrat of Watertown, made reference to the persecution of Armenians.

Representative Byron Rushing said the Legislature was in danger of making the state constitution look like an object that belonged "in the days before the Civil War." Rushing, who is black, took black religious leaders to task for coming out against gay marriage, which he said is an issue of basic civil rights.

"I am saying to that small group of leaders, shame on you," said Rushing, a Democrat from Boston's South End.

Representative David L. Flynn, a Bridgewater Democrat, said he alienated a family member with his votes against gay marriage. But he said he had a more solemn responsibility to carry out his duty as a state lawmaker.

"I lost a member of my family last night because of my vote. I say to that person, I love you," Flynn said. "In this case I believe the people have a right to vote."

Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, who is openly gay and recently adopted two boys with his partner, told a story about taking one of his sons to the hospital with a fever, only to have to argue over his paternity rights with a nurse.

"I thought, as many new parents think, that he could die on my watch, as I was fighting with a nurse over whether I was his parent or not," said Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat. "There are real harms which are incurred by this."

Early in the session, state Representative Shaun P. Kelly asked that the convention immediately adjourn. Kelly delivered an impassioned speech, invoking his openly gay House colleague, Representative Elizabeth A. Malia of Jamaica Plain, and imploring House and Senate members not to deny her any rights.

"If you believe that the love that Liz has for her partner is less than the love you have for your spouse, I would suggest that you're wrong," said Kelly, a Dalton Republican. "You would never say you were superior to the gentlelady from Jamaica Plain. You wouldn't do it. You wouldn't say that to her face."

Lawmakers lined up to offer Kelly hugs and handshakes, but his motion failed overwhelmingly, 153-44. Gay marriage opponents joined with representatives who didn't want to be accused of avoiding votes on the high-profile issue to keep the convention in session.

Yvonne Abraham, Scott Greenberger, and Raphael Lewis of the Globe staff and correspondent Matthew Rodrigues contributed to this report. Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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