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Massachusetts Legislature rejects proposed amendment banning gay marriage

BOSTON --A year after the nation's first state-sanctioned same-sex marriages began taking place, the Massachusetts Legislature on Wednesday rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that sought to ban gay marriage but legalize civil unions.

It was the second time the Legislature had confronted the measure, which was designed to be put before voters on a statewide ballot in 2006. Under state law, lawmakers were required to approve the measure in two consecutive sessions before it could move forward.

After less than two hours of debate, a joint session of the House and Senate voted 157-39 against the measure.

It was a striking departure from a year earlier when hundreds of protesters converged on Beacon Hill over the hot-button issue, legislators were torn over it and spent long hours debating the matter, and thousands of same-sex couples began a new era of getting married.

This year, the crowds were tamer and some legislators who had initially supported the proposed change to the state constitution said they no longer felt right about denying the rights of marriage to same-sex couples.

"Gay marriage has begun, and life has not changed for the citizens of the commonwealth, with the exception of those who can now marry," said state Sen. Brian Lees, an East Longmeadow Republican who had been a co-sponsor of the amendment. "This amendment which was an appropriate measure or compromise a year ago, is no longer, I feel, a compromise today."

The state's highest court ruled in November 2003 that same-sex couples had a right under the state constitution to marry. The first weddings began taking place on May 17, 2004 -- two months after lawmakers began the multistep process of seeking to change the constitution to reverse the court's ruling.

In the year-plus since the weddings began taking place, more than 6,100 couples had married.

Still, the battle is far from over.

Now, lawmakers are girding for a battle over a more-restrictive proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage but not allow for civil unions. The earliest that initiative could end up on the ballot is 2008.

"The union of two women and two men can never consummate a marriage. It's physically impossible. We can't get around that. You can be a family, absolutely. You can be loving, and I respect that absolutely. But you're not married," said Rep. Phil Travis, D-Rehoboth. "The other 49 states are right and we are wrong."

In March 2004, the Legislature had voted 105-92 in favor of the measure, which would have banned same-sex marriages but introduced Vermont-style civil unions. But for the proposed amendment to wind up on a state ballot for voters to weigh in, lawmakers in two consecutive sessions needed to approve an identical proposal.

But the political landscape has changed.

Some lawmakers say they no longer oppose gay marriage after observing a year of weddings in the state. Others say they couldn't stomach the dilemma that would come with creating two classes of gay and lesbians: one group with full marriage rights, and one without.

But the remaining proposed amendment -- driven by a citizen petition that requires support from fewer lawmakers to make its way onto a statewide ballot in 2008 -- also was a factor.

Some reluctant supporters of the first proposed amendment -- including Gov. Mitt Romney -- have abandoned it in favor of the stricter measure.

Supporters of the new plan must gather about 65,000 signatures, then submit it to the Legislature for two votes in the constitutional convention before it would go to voters in 2008.

Because citizens must go out and collect signatures first, the legislative bar is far lower: The proposed amendment needs the support of only 50 lawmakers -- 25 percent of the House and Senate -- in two constitutional conventions for it to be put to a vote.

The issue of same-sex marriage was a hot button in 2004, particularly during elections across the country.

Within a year, 11 states pushed through constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, joining six others that had done so earlier.

In addition, the Connecticut Legislature approved civil unions in April, joining Vermont in creating the designation that creates the same legal rights as marriage without calling it such. Then, earlier this month, California lawmakers passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to veto it.

Although more than 6,100 same-sex couples were married in Massachusetts, the state barred out-of-state couples from getting married here, citing a 1913 law that prohibits couples from marrying in Massachusetts if their union would be illegal in their home states. A lawsuit challenging the legality of that law is pending before the SJC

By Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press Writer | September 14, 2005
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