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Massachusetts battle a prelude to wider war

National | "GAY MARRIAGE": Lawmakers get a preview of the political firestorm to come

Issue: "Iraq: The WMD debate," Feb. 21, 2004

FIRST, there was an amendment. Then there was an amendment to an amendment. And finally, amendments of amendments of amendments. In Massachusetts' high-stakes, high-visibility showdown last week over a state court ruling ordering the state to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, both sides fought over every word, every nuance.

In response to a decision by the Supreme Judicial Court that would mandate so-called gay marriage by mid-May, the Massachusetts Legislature formed a rare Constitutional Convention to craft some recourse against the court's activism. Other items were on the convention's agenda, such as limiting the content of appropriations bills and allowing for the direct election of judges. But everyone knew that the big debate-the one with national implications and international attention-was the one over homosexual marriage.

Finally, just after 2 p.m. on Feb. 11, the legislature went to work on the main event. Six and a half hours later, all they could agree on was that they'd come back and try again the next day. The initial proposal looked simple enough: Offer the voters a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. But the process is much more complex: To put an amendment before the voters, a simple majority in both houses of the state legislature must approve the exact wording-once this year, and a second time in the 2005-2006 legislative session.

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In theory, the mere thought of gaining such legislative approval should have been a virtual impossibility. Democrats dominate the liberal commonwealth's legislature with 169 of the 200 seats. And the biggest opponent of gay marriage, the Roman Catholic Church, could be seen as weakened by scandal. But the Massachusetts Family Institute, led by Ronald Crews, teamed with the Massachusetts Catholic Conference and other religious institutions to form a broad-based coalition desperate to find a way, any way, around the Supreme Judicial Court's decision.

The MFI and the Massachusetts Catholic Conference together mailed about 1 million brochures explaining the issues to lay people. They arranged phone banks to call citizens to action, encouraged people to form groups to meet with their representatives, and networked with more than 600 pastors and priests to help lead others to action. The call to action in Massachusetts was twofold, Mr. Crews said. "First for prayer," he said. "Second, to put feet to prayer-to say we must take a stand today, not just here but on the federal level."

In terms of polling numbers, the large-scale educational effort seemed to work. By early January, a Zogby poll revealed nearly 70 percent of respondents in Massachusetts wanted to vote on a definition of marriage. "This is a political world here," Mr. Crews said. "The legislature knows this will be a recorded vote and they know they've heard the people's will." And he expects they'll feel the heat.

During Wednesday's debate in the Massachusetts Statehouse, lawmakers admitted they already were feeling the heat. One legislator said he'd received more than 4,000 e-mails and others described the stacks of letters in their offices. At the opening of the convention, chants of "Let the people vote" could be heard even through the chamber's closed doors from demonstrators in the lobby.

Still, the first step in amending the state constitution proved to be anything but simple. Meeting in joint session, the legislature first voted down a surprise amendment only slightly different from the original language, then it rejected a compromise defining marriage narrowly, but giving gay and lesbian couples wide rights under civil unions. Outside the statehouse, gay-rights activists shouted, "We won, you lost," after the first two amendments were voted down.

But more was yet to come. After adjourning for the night, House and Senate negotiators met privately to cobble together a compromise aimed at trying to win over the few holdouts needed for passage.

For both sides, the debate is just a beginning. Close votes in the legislature will lead to bitter political campaigns statewide. The issue is sure to resonate in November's presidential election, and pro-family leaders believe the Massachusetts mess may help them pass a federal marriage amendment (see sidebar).

For now, however, the process in Massachusetts grinds on slowly-as same-sex couples plan their rush to the altar in May.

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