Massachusetts lawmakers debated a constitutional ban on gay marriage for more than six hours Wednesday but ended the day as divided as they began — and still with no resolution on an issue that has drawn nationwide scrutiny.
Legislators meeting in joint session at a constitutional convention shot down two compromise proposals that would have allowed for civil unions, rather than the full-fledged marriages the state's highest court has ordered the state to begin allowing in mid-May.
Lawmakers are to reconvene Thursday to take up a third compromise proposal — continuing the debate on an issue that has put Massachusetts at the forefront of a contentious social, political, religious and legal issue.
Massachusetts was thrust into the epicenter of the gay marriage debate in November when the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled it was unconstitutional to ban gay couples from marrying, a decision that was reaffirmed last week.
The frenzied first day unfolded before more than 4,000 spectators in the Statehouse and reflected a Legislature deeply divided about how to respond to the court's 4-3 ruling.
"We are as divided as the Supreme Judicial Court. We are as divided as the people of Massachusetts. We're as divided as the nation on this," said House Speaker Thomas Finneran, an ardent opponent of gay marriage.
A proposal to change the state constitution to ban gay marriages had been advanced earlier, but the court's ruling gave it new urgency. A simple majority of the Legislature would have to vote twice — this year and during the 2005-2006 session — to approve a constitutional amendment before it could be placed on the November 2006 ballot for voters to consider.
House and Senate leaders met behind closed doors after the 8:30 p.m. adjournment and said they were working on a third compromise — very similar to one already rejected — that they hoped would be able to sway the few votes necessary to cobble together a majority against gay marriage.
Gay-rights advocates conceded it appeared support was mounting for a ban.
"It's increasingly clear that the Legislature is positioning itself to take back the marriage rights we currently have, to take back over 1,000 protections we currently have, to enshrine discrimination into our constitution, and to create a system of separate but unequal," said Arline Isaacson, co-leader of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
Opponents rooted their arguments in the constitution's guarantee of every citizen's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, a Democrat, drew upon her experience as a black woman growing up 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.
Supporters of a ban called for the Legislature to allow voters the opportunity to weigh in the issue.
"Mother Nature left her blueprint behind and she left it in DNA, a man and a woman," said Rep. Marie Parente, another Democrat. The party controls 169 of the Legislature's 200 seats. (One seat is vacant.)
At day's end, the Legislature voted 104-94 to defeat a bipartisan proposal crafted by Senate leaders who wished to ban gay marriage, but allow civil unions in Massachusetts in November 2006, the earliest an amendment could be placed on the ballot.
If the amendment were approved at that time, gay couples married in the interim would be stripped of their licenses and considered part of a civil union.
The compromise to be considered Thursday is almost identical, but says nothing about what would happen to gay couples who marry in the two-year period, according to House Ways and Means Chairman John Rogers, who helped craft the proposal.
Earlier in the day, lawmakers narrowly defeated a surprise amendment by Finneran that would have given the Legislature the option of adopting civil unions at some point, rather than automatically establishing them if the constitution were ultimately amended by voters.
Crowds chanted "Let the people vote!" and "Equality now!" outside the House chamber at the start of the session. More than 1,500 people rallied, some praying, others yelling.
The issue is certain to have political repercussions for state legislators facing re-election in November — and in the presidential race, particularly if U.S. Sen. John Kerry (news - web sites), a Massachusetts Democrat, ends up as the party's nominee. Although he opposes gay marriage, his residency from a predominantly Catholic state still viewed as liberal is likely to draw him into debates over the issue with the Republican President Bush (news - web sites).
If gay marriage is allowed in Massachusetts, federal lawsuits would likely ensue as gay couples seek recognition in other states and by the federal government. While state marriages are normally respected in other jurisdictions, 38 states and the federal government have approved laws or amendments barring the recognition of gay marriage.
Adopted in 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution is the oldest still-governing written constitution in the world. It has been amended 120 times, most recently in 2000.