By Lisa Keen
Gay marriage supporters lost a battle Tuesday in the only state thus far which has approved the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The Massachusetts legislature, reversing a controversial decision to avoid voting on a proposed constitutional ban, voted on the measure and sent it forward. If the legislature grants it the necessary votes in the new legislative session -which began Wednesday– Massachusetts voters could weigh in on the issue of same-sex marriage in 2008.
Most legislators voted against the measure; but it needed only 50 votes to advance to the next session and it ultimately received 62.
It was a stunning defeat for gay political and legal activists who, less than two months ago, had declared victory. At the end of November, they had persuaded a majority of legislators to vote for a recess rather than address the proposed constitutional ban. That strategic move set off a firestorm of criticism against legislators. Proponents of the measure cried foul, saying lawmakers were shirking their constitutional duty to vote on the issue.
But many gay civil rights supporters had declared victory, fully expecting that they had successfully averted the necessary legislative vote, and that the earliest the measure might appear on the ballot would be 2010.
Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who has made opposition to same-sex marriage one of the key planks in his planned presidential campaign, rushed a plea to the state supreme court asking for their intervention to force a vote. The court said it had no authority to force the legislature to vote, but it strongly criticized the lawmakers for evading the vote.
Romney stands to gain from a 2008 ballot measure. If he should win the Republican nomination for president, an anti-gay initiative will help turn out conservative voters in Massachusetts and give him increased impetus to discuss his opposition to same-sex marriage on the campaign trail.
Incoming Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who was sworn in Jan. 4, lobbied key legislators to stick by their position and not vote on the proposed amendment. He reiterated his support for the November 2003 decision of the state supreme court, finding that the constitution requires gay couples be treated the same as heterosexual couples in the issuance of marriage license. And he said that advancing the initiative was a “irresponsible and wrong.”
“Never in the long history of our model [state] constitution have we used the initiative petition to restrict freedom,” said Patrick.
After legislators voted on the measure, supporters of same-sex marriage tried a few procedural maneuvers to thwart it. They first successfully approved a measure to reconsider their earlier vote on the measure, which had 61 votes in favor; but when they took a revote, the proposal picked up another vote, or 62 in all.
Arline Isaacson, a long-time gay lobbyist and key strategist against the measure, was clearly overwhelmed by the turn of events.
“This is devastatingly bad news for us,” said Isaacson, adding that the legislature’s vote had been a “travesty” and that putting the measure on the ballot would trigger “one of the nastiest and most divisive” political battles the state has ever seen. But though she appeared battle weary, Isaacson vowed that the fight is “not over.”
The final hurdle for the measure now is a second and final vote by the legislature during the 2007 legislative session. That session began Wednesday and a vote could take place anytime this year.
The good news for gay civil rights supporters is that the membership of the new legislature means the 62 votes in support of the measure will likely stand at only 55, given the loss of anti-gay legislators due to retirement and re-election losses. Same-sex marriage supporters will no doubt be working hard to change the hearts and votes of six more legislators before that final vote is taken.