By Lisa Keen
BOSTON – One major skirmish was won this month, but another was lost in what has now become a years-long battle to preserve the marriage rights of same-sex couples in Massachusetts.
One year after the state legislature approved a constitutional amendment to ban marriage, it executed a dramatic turnaround and rejected the measure. The proposed ban needed approval from two consecutive legislative sessions in order to be put on the ballot in 2006. Last year, the proposal – which would have established civil unions for same-sex couples as the only legal recognition – won approval on a 105 to 92 vote. But this year, the vote was 157 to 39 against the proposal.
The State House chambers in Boston erupted into loud cheers as the tally was announced Wednesday, Sept. 14.
As it did last year, the proposal received votes from both legislators supporting equal rights for gays and those virulently opposed. But this year, many more moderate legislators who had supported the amendment last year crossed over and voted against it this year. Among those who voted against the amendment this year was one of the proposal’s co-sponsors, Senate Republican Leader Brian Lees. Lees told the Boston Globe he had received nearly 8,000 e-mails and letters on the issue.
“Gay marriage has begun, and life has not changed for the citizens of the commonwealth, with the exception of those who can now marry,” Lees told the Globe.
Credit for bringing about the dramatic turnaround was given to a coalition of gay groups called MassEquality, whose supporters waged a concerted lobby effort, especially during last November’s elections, to change the climate of the legislature this year.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign which contributed $1 million to those efforts, said Wednesday’s vote demonstrates that “the more voters and legislators see the reality of marriage equality, the more they understand and support the simple, but profound quest of our families to be treated equally under the law.”
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force which donated $346,000 to the effort, said the vote “proves that dogged grassroots organizing can change legislative votes.”
Massachusetts has issued more than 6,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples since May 2004 and no proposal in the legislature or on the ballot has attempted to undo the legal standing of those marriages.
But opponents of gay marriage have not given up and, in a particularly stinging defeat for gay civil rights activists, the state attorney general on Sept. 7 approved a ballot measure to ban legal recognition of any form of gay relationships.
Attorney General Tom Reilly this month certified an initiative question for the 2008 ballot that seeks to ban future same-sex marriages. And this week, apparently in an effort to gain support for the 2008 ballot measure, opponents of same-sex marriage said they would introduce legislation to create a limited form of recognition for gay couples.
When the attorney general approved the anti-gay ballot measure, the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus issued an unusually harsh criticism. Co-chair Arline Isaacson called Reilly’s decision a “crassly political” one.
“Tom Reilly threw the entire gay community in front of a bus today,” said Isaacson. “He sacrificed us at the altar of his own political ambitions, and he totally ignored the law, and has shown a stunning level of cowardliness. This is a crassly political decision. And he should be ashamed of himself.” Reilly is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor next year.
The state constitution stipulates that ballot measures cannot deal with certain topics, such as religion, and that they cannot be an effort to reverse a judicial decision. The initiative approved by Reilly was proposed by the Massachusetts Family Institute which said it was responding to “an activist court.” The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Nov. 23 that the state constitution requires the state issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples the same as it does to heterosexual ones. The case was Goodridge v. Massachusetts.
Reilly’s office defended his decision, in a memorandum to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders which had argued that the ballot measure violated the state constitution’s requirements that initiatives not seek to reverse a judicial decision.
The ballot measure, said Reilly, is not an effort to reverse the court’s decision but, rather, to amend the state constitution.
“Amending the words of the constitution does not require the people to say that a court’s decision was wrong and should be ignored,” said the memo. “Instead, it changes the rules to be applied by the court so that future cases will turn out differently.”
The initiative must now garner the approval of 25 percent of the legislature (50 votes) before being finalized for the ballot, but that is expected to be an easy hurdle to scale.
So MassEquality and other groups will now have to turn their attention to a statewide lobby and education effort aimed at the general voting population. And activists are uneasy about the challenges they face in that arena.
“If the ballot question is fought on the merits of issue, we’d win,” said Isaacson. “Unfortunately, our opponents use every negative myth and stereotype about us in their campaign and they use fear as a weapon against us. That’s why these types of measures win in every other state.”
Meanwhile, next month, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a New England gay legal group, will challenge a state law that has been used to bar out-of-state couples from coming to Massachusetts to marry.