BOSTON – Massachusetts lawmakers blocked a proposed constitutional amendment Thursday that would have let voters decide whether to ban gay marriage in the only state that allows it.
The narrow vote was a victory for gay marriage advocates and a blow to efforts to reverse the historic court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in the state. More than 8,500 gay couples have married in Massachusetts since it became legal in May 2004.
To get the proposed ban on the 2008 statewide ballot would have required 50 votes. It got 45, with 151 lawmakers opposed. There was no debate.
As the tally was announced, the halls of the Statehouse erupted in applause.
"We're proud of our state today, and we applaud the Legislature for showing that Massachusetts is strongly behind fairness," said Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.
Opponents of gay marriage vowed to press on, but Thursday's defeat after more than three years of sometimes wrenching debate could prove insurmountable. Any effort to mount a new ballot question would take years at a time political support in Massachusetts is swinging firmly behind gay marriage.
For gay couples, the vote marked what could be the end of a struggle that began in 2001, when seven same-sex couples, denied marriage licenses, sued in Suffolk Superior Court.
Outside the Statehouse, hundreds of people rallied on both sides of the issue.
"We believe it's unconstitutional not to allow people to vote on this," said Rebekah Beliveau, 24, of Lawrence, a student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary who stood with fellow college-age amendment supporters across the street from the Statehouse.
Advocates of the amendment said they gathered 170,000 signatures supporting the amendment, although the secretary of state's office accepted only 123,000. "We're standing up not necessarily on the issue of same-sex marriage, but our right to vote," Beliveau said.
Across the road, gay marriage advocates stood on the front steps of the capital waving signs that read, "Wrong to Vote on Rights" and "All Families Are Equal."
Jean Chandler, 62, of Cambridge, came with fellow members of her Baptist church in an effort to rebuff the image that strict followers of the Bible are opposed to gay marriage.
"I think being gay is like being left-handed," Chandler said. "If we decided left-handed people couldn't marry, what kind of society would we be?"
In contrast to previous joint sessions, there was no debate Thursday. Senate President Therese Murray opened the constitutional convention by calling for a vote, and the session was gaveled to a close immediately afterward.