Mass. Conservatives Late to Action on Gay Rights

Conservatives in Massachusetts say they failed to match intensity and focus of the gay lobby there, and blame themselves, in part, for finding their state on the brink of legalizing homosexual marriage (search).

"We've been active, but it's harder to get people interested in an earthquake before you feel any tremors -- now people are feeling the tremors," said Glenn T. Stanton, a spokesman for Focus on the Family (search), which is starting a district-to-district campaign in Massachusetts this month.

"More and more people are realizing that this is real, that this is not just something where someone is crying wolf," said Jim Rickert, a conservative activist from Quincy.

Last month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state not to allow gay couples to marry, and told the Massachusetts Legislature that it must decide within 180 days of the ruling how it plans to grant benefits and protections to homosexual couples.

Lawmakers have so far responded in a number of ways. Pro-gay marriage supporters have read the ruling as a clear directive for the state to allow gays to apply for full marriage licenses in May.

Others see wiggle room in the ruling, and hope to work fast to amend state statutes to comply with the anti-discrimination directive of the court by affording gay couples benefits and protections on the order of "civil unions," but not marriage.  That approach coincides with most national polls that show a majority of respondents oppose legalized homosexual marriage, but are more accepting of civil unions.

However, conservative groups currently mobilizing say passing civil union laws is unacceptable. They argue that the sanctity of marriage is being destroyed, and lawmakers must not be bullied into complying with a court that has overreached its authority.

"We are lobbying the Legislature to do it right," said Ron Crews, executive director of the Massachusetts Family Institute (search).

A bill already introduced would amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and woman only. But a movement is afoot to massage the bill to allow for civil unions, and it seems to be catching hold.

"I think clearly, there is a willingness on the part of legislators that I have spoken to to make some moves towards addressing some of the concerns advanced by the members of the gay and lesbian community for benefits," said House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, R-North Reading.

A poll conducted by the Boston Globe just after the SJC ruling found that 60 out of 94 legislators who responded said they would not support a constitutional amendment. For a constitutional amendment to pass, a majority of the 200-member Legislature must vote in favor of it at two successive joint sessions.

But the poll also found that several of the lawmakers opposed to a constitutional amendment would be amenable to it if the bill did not preclude civil unions. And Jones said he knows of no lawmaker willing to push directly for a constitutional amendment defining marriage without supporting some sort of civil rights protections to gay couples.

"I'm not opposed to passing some sort of benefits," said Rep. Vinnie deMacedo, R-Plymouth, who supports a constitutional amendment. "But as far as marriage goes, I think that is going too far."

Rep. Philip Travis, D-Rehoboth, the key sponsor of the constitutional amendment, told that he would be willing to make a change to the bill's language if it meant getting more members on board.

"Most of [the legislators] believe that the relationship of marriage is between a man and a woman, but they want to give latitude to those who want some form of marriage, but to call it a civil union," he said.

But that kind of thinking just won't do for conservatives, who are just now starting to organize.

Brian Camenker, head of the Massachusetts-based Parents' Rights Coalition, said conservatives plan to direct all of their energy toward convincing lawmakers to ignore the court and pass no new civil union or gay marriage laws, a tack most acknowledge is an uphill battle at best.

"I think the wrath of the people in their districts is what every one of these legislators has to hear and they have to hear it strongly," Camenker said. "We need to take charge of our government again."

Conservative groups admit that they disagree amongst themselves about whether to focus on constitutional changes, marriage versus civil unions or other approaches to getting the best outcome for their supporters.

"The 'Focus on Family' approach is, let's work with the legislation, finesse it, make deals, get allies together," Camenker said. "Our approach is, this is madness, and we expect every legislator to do the right thing."

Crews said his group has planned a number of town hall-style meetings to discuss the implications of the SJC ruling, and conservative leaders are urging supporters to contact their state legislators immediately.

"Contact them again and again, by phone, by e-mail, by personal visits, and tell them we do not want homosexual marriage in our state," Crews said.

State lawmakers canvassed by say they are not getting an avalanche of calls from citizens angry about the court's ruling or the debate now occurring in the Legislature, though calls, e-mails, letters and faxes are coming in steadily.

Any constitutional amendment will not reach the ballot for a referendum until 2006, after the court's deadline, say supporters of the ruling and long after some form of legal recognition of gay unions goes forward in May 2003.

"In all honestly, it's too late," said Sen. Cheryl Jacques, D-Norfolk, an openly gay legislator who called the SJC ruling an historic civil rights milestone.