BOSTON – With one chapter closed in Massachusetts' gay marriage (search) debate, several new ones now open, as gay couples look ahead to what may be a short-lived chance to tie the knot and lawmakers prepare for crucial November elections.
Legislators approved a constitutional amendment Monday that would ban gay marriages while legalizing civil unions (search). If passed during the next two-year Legislative session, the measure would go before voters in November 2006.
The move comes even as the nation's first state-sanctioned gay marriages are scheduled to begin in mid-May, as ordered by a November ruling of the state's Supreme Judicial Court.
Attention now turns to the fall elections, when lawmakers will have to defend their votes on the contentious social issue and fend off attempts to change the makeup of the Legislature.
All 200 legislative seats are up for grabs in November, and the amendment was approved Monday with only four votes to spare. It now becomes critical for opponents of gay marriage to ensure the re-election of their allies this fall.
Within moments of the historic vote, Gov. Mitt Romney (search) told reporters he would ask the state's highest court to block gay marriages until the amendment process has run its lengthy course.
"Given the conflict, I believe the Supreme Judicial Court should delay the imposition of its decision until the people have a chance to be heard," said Romney, a Republican in his first term.
"If we begin providing for same-sex marriages on May 17," he said, "we will have created a good deal of confusion during the period in between — for the couples involved, for our state, for other states where couples may have moved and for the children of these families."
But Attorney General Tom Reilly, whose represents the state in court, said he would not seek to delay the May 17 deadline on Romney's behalf. Without court action, Monday's decision will not affect the deadline.
"It was very clear to me as attorney general that the majority of the Supreme Judicial Court have made up their minds," said Reilly, considered a possible Democratic candidate for governor in 2006. "Do I agree with their decision? No. Absolutely not. But that is the law of the state."
Gay-rights advocates felt little joy in seeing a proposed amendment include civil-union rights. They'd already witnessed the state's highest court award full marriage rights only to see lawmakers try to water it down.
"I believe many of them are going to feel very ashamed of what they've just done today," said Arline Isaacson, co-leader of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus (search).
But conservatives also weren't quick to embrace the compromise amendment, calling it blackmail to force citizens to approve civil unions as part of a marriage ban.
"We are giving the people a false choice," said Rep. Vinny deMacedo, a Republican. "We're saying, 'No problem, you can vote to define marriage as between a man and a woman, but the only way you can do it is if you create civil unions that are entirely the same as marriage."'
The constitutional convention took place in front of thousands of citizens, who crowded the Statehouse each day to watch from the gallery and protest in the hallways.
After each intonation of "Jesus" by gay rights opponents inside the building Monday, gay rights advocates tacked on "loves us." The two opposing sides then shouted "Jesus Christ!" and "equal rights!" simultaneously, blending into a single, indistinguishable chant.
The debate in Massachusetts has unfolded in the national spotlight, continuing to move forward as mayors across the country permitted unsanctioned gay weddings in their cities.
"This entire debate ... has occurred in the eye of a social and cultural and even spiritual storm," said House Speaker Thomas Finneran. "Massachusetts is hesitant about what the appropriate course of action might be. The nation seems to be similarly divided."