Mass. Session Ends With No Gay Marriage Decision

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As yet another Democratic lawmaker was pouring out a personal story late Thursday night, state Senate President Robert Travalgini interrupted.

“I have just been informed by the clerk that it is now 12 o’clock midnight,” the Boston Democrat declared.

He slammed his gavel and recessed the constitutional convention that for two days argued and anguished over how to reverse a court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

No amendment was passed, and the Legislature adjourned until March 11.

Three separate amendments defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman were voted down in the course of the bitter, joint legislative session.

Some included references to civil union -- the marriage-like alternative adopted by Vermont as a statute but never before codified in a constitution.

A fourth amendment on the table Thursday night troubled some liberal legislators who feared their colleagues would vote it down to make way for another proposal that still defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman -- but offered stricter guidelines for the establishment of civil unions.

“It has been a struggle for the members, as it is for every citizen,” said House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, a Boston Democrat. “Every proposal has serious social, cultural and legal implications, and the members are approaching this task in a very thoughtful way. No one should expect that decisions of this magnitude would be made casually or quickly.”

Applauding exhausted lawmakers as they streamed out of their chamber, Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, reflected on the legislative marathon.

“We are obviously happy to have dodged this bullet,” she said. “But we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that at the end of the day, they won’t put our civil rights on the ballot.”

Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute and a spokesman for for the Coalition for Marriage, said he was “extremely disappointed” with the outcome.

“I put the primary responsibility on the leadership,” Crews said.

But a legislative aide who asked not to be named said the Legislature’s failure to take action “allowed everyone to walk away without being a loser.”

To reverse a court decision making Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, lawmakers were left with no alternative but to draft a constitutional amendment.

Changes to the Massachusetts constitution -- the oldest in America -- require a three-step process. An initial vote by a majority of both houses in the Legislature must be followed one year later by a second vote of approval. The following November, the amendment must be presented to voters as a ballot referendum.

If a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is approved by the current Legislature -- and then reaffirmed a year later -- the earliest it could reach the general public is November 2006.

Under a ruling by the state’s highest court, however, same-sex couples would be eligible to marry in Massachusetts as early as May 17.

In a clarification last week, the court emphasized that civil unions would not satisfy constitutional requirements. That ruling prompted the flurry of action by lawmakers.

The fact that the latest proposed amendment did not specify what would happen to same-sex couples who marry in the 2 1/2-year interim before the constitutional change reached the public was troubling to some supporters of same-sex marriage.

Although the crowds representing both factions had dwindled slightly from the day before, Thursday’s spectators made up in volume what they lacked in numbers.

For hours, hundreds of same-sex marriage supporters crowded the hall outside the legislative chamber, chanting and singing in decibels that threatened to rock the gold-domed Statehouse.

“Let’s do ‘The Star Spangled Banner!’ ” shouted a de facto conductor after the demonstrators had worked their way through dozens of choruses of “We Shall Overcome.”

More quietly, lobbyists from both sides tried their best to influence legislators who were gathered in emergency caucuses throughout the day.

Inside the chamber, lawmaker after lawmaker took the floor to offer anecdotes, invectives and history lessons. There were scores of personal reflections -- stories about Armenian grandparents, childhood in foster care and harsh instruction on the consequences of abandoning one’s constituents.

“You will not escape the wrath of the general public who are calling you and writing you,” said Democratic Rep. Philip Travis, who had introduced the amendment defeated Thursday. Travis said he worried about the precedent his state might set in providing a constitutional framework for same-sex unions of any kind.

“We are changing a mind-set that has existed in nature for 4,000 years,” he said. “We are making Massachusetts not the birthplace of liberty, but the birthplace of marriage by two people of the same sex.”

But Rep. Shaun P. Kelly, a Republican, took to the floor to warn that “anything less than 100% equality demeans the spirit of Massachusetts.”

“If you grant yourself a privilege and don’t extend it to someone else, you are putting yourself in a position of superiority,” Kelly said before calling for a vote to adjourn the constitutional convention.

His colleagues quickly shot down that effort, and the anguished debate resumed.

Describing his recent frustration in trying to deal with a hospital staff when his young son became ill, Sen. Jarrett T. Barrios drew applause from fellow legislators. The Cambridge Democrat is the Senate’s only openly gay member. He is also the author of a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as a union between two people, with no gender specification.

Barrios’ bill was superceded Thursday by the Travis amendment.

The only openly gay member of the state House of Representatives also won cheers as she urged legislators to reject the compromise amendment late Thursday night.

“I ask you to seriously consider the impact of moving a denial of rights into the constitution of the state of Massachusetts,” said Rep. Elizabeth A. Malia, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain, a section of Boston.

“Those of us who are in the lesbian, gay, yes, and bisexual and transgendered community, we are here to ask you to please understand that the institution of marriage is not and never has been a rigid, inflexible institution,” Malia said.

“It is something that has evolved and changed as our needs as people have evolved and changed,” she said.

Malia said that in almost 20 years of working in the Legislature, “I do not recall an opportunity when we have been able to work together and engage difficult but honest issues in the manner that I have seen in the last two days.”

Such entreaties did little to impress Rep. Marie Parente, one the senior legislators on Beacon Hill. The Democrat from Milford, in central Massachusetts, said she was especially concerned about the children of gay and lesbian parents.

“So let’s not get carried away with rights,” she said.