After three tumultuous sessions spread over six weeks, the Massachusetts legislature on March 29 finally passed a long-anticipated ban on gay marriage ... sort of.
By a vote of 105-92, Bay State lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment that would outlaw marriages between same-sex couples while simultaneously guaranteeing those couples the financial benefits of marriage through state-sanctioned civil unions.
It was a compromise that left both pro-family activists and gay-rights lobbyists feeling, well, compromised. If Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, could take any solace from the legislature's convoluted solution, it was that the other side couldn't claim victory outright.
"My thought was, if this thing goes down -- even as bad as it is -- the Gay and Lesbian Task Force can say, 'We defeated the Catholic Church, the Coalition for Marriage, the Republican Party, the governor, and the [Senate] leadership.' Quite frankly, I didn't want them to be able to say that."
But Mr. Crews and his allies can hardly claim victory, either. "I have to admit defeat in our efforts" to separate the two issues of gay marriage and civil unions, he said. That's sure to confuse voters when the amendment appears on the statewide ballot in 2006. As one legislator put it during an impassioned speech, it's like being forced to vote for both John Kerry and George W. Bush on the same ballot.
While voters await their day at the polls, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney appears to be the last line of defense before court-ordered gay marriage ceremonies begin on May 17. If he fails, allowing same-sex couples to get their first-ever state marriage licenses, the constitutional debate will ripple far beyond the shores of Massachusetts Bay.
Pro-family groups may not have gotten the amendment they wanted, but they almost got nothing at all. Despite polls showing that gay marriage is unpopular with Massachusetts voters, NGLTF and its allies used a small core of lawmakers -- and a risky, Machiavellian strategy -- to defeat stronger amendments that once looked like a shoo-in.
The strategy originated partly with Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Caucus. "We've been working on it for weeks and it made us very nervous," she admitted shortly after the vote. With only 72 ardent backers of gay marriage in the 197-seat legislature, Ms. Isaacson found herself playing defense from the start. Armed with BlackBerry devices and pagers, the pro-gay coalition of lawmakers coalesced in support of a compromise amendment offered by Senate President Robert E. Travaglini. Conservatives objected to the compromise, backing instead two stronger versions that would have split the issues of gay marriage and civil unions into two separate ballot questions.
When it became clear that the tougher wording could not muster a majority, another vote was scheduled on the compromise language. This time, however, the 72 liberals switched sides to vote against the bill they had previously supported. Ms. Isaacson hoped that would kill the bill entirely, but her gambit backfired when Mr. Crews asked conservative lawmakers to switch sides as well, backing the bill they had previously opposed.
Mr. Crews knew it had been a close call. "We had some of the floor leaders of the Speaker who were working with us," he said. "They were able to get messages into the chamber quickly on our behalf to send signals on how to vote.... I think [the gay-rights lobby] had to acknowledge they lost on the final vote. It was a gamble for them. Even when they got their guys to back off, we had enough of a coalition to pass the meager amendment that it is."
With a constitutional amendment finally pending, Gov. Romney quickly announced that the Supreme Judicial Court should stay its earlier deadline for gay marriages, giving the voters a chance to make their wishes known. But the state attorney general, a Democrat rumored to be a future gubernatorial candidate, announced just as quickly that he would not petition for the stay.
Unless Mr. Romney can find a way to persuade the court without the aid of his attorney general, May 17 could set off a firestorm of lawsuits when Massachusetts honeymooners return home across state borders. What if a newly married gay couple shows up in nearby Maine or Pennsylvania and requests benefits? Both states have defense-of-marriage laws that prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states. The gay couple could sue the state, arguing the DOMA law violates the "full faith and credit" that the Constitution requires one state to give another state's laws.
Legal precedent says a state may deny full faith and credit if the state can show it has a good reason to do so. Massachusetts, for instance, would not be expected to recognize a concealed handgun permit issued in Texas. But legal precedent and popular support don't always secure court victories these days, and experts say gay-marriage cases stemming from Massachusetts could quickly clog judicial dockets all across the country.
Meanwhile, back in Boston, the political battles are still far from over. Ron Crews said he would try to make the issue cut back against some of the 72 legislators in the gay-rights coalition. "If we take down some legislators, that could really shake some things up," he said. "It wouldn't take many to send a signal."
For now, however, another kind of signal seems clear: Gay marriages have a green light in the Bay State, and it could take years to put the brakes on.