Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday again avoided taking a formal stand on a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, recessing a constitutional convention instead of taking up the thorny issue.

If lawmakers do not vote on the measure before the next Legislature takes office, the measure will not appear on the November 2008 ballot. A vote appeared unlikely because they recessed until Jan. 2, the last day this Legislature is in session.

Lawmakers voted 196-0 to reject a proposed amendment that would invalidate thousands of same-sex marriages already conducted, but decided to recess without voting on another measure that would bar such marriages only after the amendment was enacted.

Supporters of the less restrictive measure, the subject of a petition drive, accused supporters of same-sex marriage of using the more punitive question to detract attention from their own. They said voters deserved a chance to decide whether same-sex marriage — imposed on the state by its highest court — should remain legal, especially since 170,000 of them signed petitions calling for the measure.

"I'm probably 3,000 feet to the right of Attila the Hun. But the gracious people, the socially conscious people, the liberal people, you're the ones who always want everyone to be heard. What about these 170,000 people?" said Democratic Rep. Marie Parente.

Democratic Sen. Jarrett Barrios, an openly gay member of the Legislature, pointed to his wedding ring as he warned colleagues that putting same-sex marriage on the ballot would open the doors to a negative campaign vilifying gays.

"You don't have to live next to us, you don't have to like us," Barrios said. "We are only asking you today to end the debate so that we can sleep easily knowing that while you may not live next to us or even like us that we will at least have the right to enjoy the same rights the rest of you enjoy."

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November 2003 that the state's constitution guarantees gays and lesbians the right to marry in Massachusetts. Those weddings began in May 2004, and since then, more than 8,000 couples have tied the knot.

Both proposals before Thursday's constitutional convention, a joint meeting of the House and Senate, would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

The less restrictive measure would appear on the November 2008 ballot with the approval of just 50 lawmakers — a quarter of the Legislature — in this legislative session and the next. But the heavily Democratic Legislature voted to recess without weighing in on the proposed amendment.

Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes same-sex marriages, had said support for the ballot question remained steady. "We've got comfortably in excess of 50 votes, and that's unchanged," he said before the convention recessed.

In 2002, former Senate President Thomas Birmingham adjourned a similar convention before a vote. Senate President Robert Travaglini had said he intended to bring the question to debate and resolution, but on Wednesday told The Boston Globe he would entertain a motion by lawmakers to adjourn or recess before voting on the amendment.

The decision was one victory among many this week for Massachusetts gay-marriage supporters. Politicians who support them scored across-the-board wins in Tuesday's elections — most notably Democrat Deval Patrick, who will succeed GOP Gov. Mitt Romney, a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage.

Gay marriage supporters have said Romney, who decided not to seek re-election as he considers running for president, could try to force a vote by reconvening the convention. On Thursday, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom refused to comment, other than to refer to a statement released Wednesday in which Romney called on the Legislature to vote on the question.

Arline Isaacson of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus said Wednesday that the favorable local election results were tempered nationally by a string of defeats. Amendments to ban gay marriage passed in Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. Only Arizona defeated such an amendment.

Two states — Vermont and Connecticut — have legalized civil unions that give same-sex couples benefits and responsibilities similar to marriage. Last month New Jersey's highest court ordered the Legislative to allow either marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples.