Gay Marriage Ban Thwarted
Legislators Kill Ballot Question
[BOSTON, MA] - Legislators yesterday used a procedural maneuver to kill a ballot question that sought to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage, brushing aside 130,000 signatures from voters supporting the measure and turning a deaf ear to the hollers of hundreds of supporters.
The legislative opponents of the ballot question, led by Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, lacked the votes necessary to defeat it outright. Instead they voted 137-53 to adjourn the constitutional convention indefinitely, effectively blocking the question from appearing on the election ballot.
"It was wrong-hearted and wrong-headed," said Birmingham, a Chelsea Democrat, of the ballot question.
The legislators' move was a victory for gay-rights activists but set off anger from the hundreds of supporters of the ballot question assembled at the State House yesterday. They had gathered twice the requisite number of signatures to put the question on the 2004 election ballot. The question also needed approval from 25 percent of House and Senate members at a constitutional convention during this legislative session and next to be placed before voters.
The ballot question appeared to have that support, and more, but no vote was taken on the question itself.
"We had the votes today," said James Lafferty, spokesman for Massachusetts Citizens for Marriage, which had backed the amendment. "Mr. Birmingham has once again blocked the people of Massachusetts out of the process."
In a written statement, C. J. Doyle of the Catholic Action League accused Birmingham of using the process to enhance his gubernatorial prospects.
"Everything that is wrong with Massachusetts state government was apparent today for all the world to see," Doyle said. "A lame-duck Senate president, Thomas Birmingham, abused his power to subvert the Constitution and frustrate the democratic process because his failing gubernatorial campaign could not withstand pressure from the homosexual lobby."
Legislators were booed and cheered by those in the gallery as they exited the chamber after the vote. Several hundred of the amendment's supporters and opponents milled around the State House all morning before the vote. A scuffle erupted shortly before the joint session began, as 250 people on both sides of the issue who were waiting to get into the gallery, which holds only 100 people, surged for the doors. An officer restrained the overflow crowd.
After the vote, the amendment's supporters' frustration boiled over in State House corridors. One woman interrupted a television interview with a legislator to shout "The people have lost their voice!" repeatedly, and "We all know he's gay!" as she pointed to an activist. She was escorted from the building.
Even some legislators who opposed the ballot question were dismayed at the method used to kill it. While opponents of the meausure needed the votes of more than 75 percent of legislators to defeat it, they needed just a simple majority to approve the motion to adjourn, effectively ending consideration of the question.
"I thought we had a responsibility to take a vote on it given the numer of signatures and the extraordinary effort that's been put into it, and basically as a reflection of respect for the process," said Senator David P. Magnani, a Framingham Democrat. Magnani, like five of the seven senators who opposed the adjournment, said he would have voted against the ballot question if it had been allowed to come to the floor. But he said he felt strongly that it should have been debated on its merits.
And though he is normally one of the loudest voices decrying similar procedural maneuvers when used by House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, Representative Jay Kaufman of Concord voted to adjourn yesterday, albeit grudgingly. Finneran, by contrast, voted against the adjournment.
"For those of us who believe in an open democratic process, this was not a comfortable vote," Kaufman said.
But gay advocates and others who opposed the ballot question were overjoyed. They shook hands and hugged each other after the session closed.
"We are absolutely, deeply appreciative of Tom Birmingham's leadership on this issue," said Arline Isaacson, board member of Massequality.org, wiping tears from her eyes. "It's great that so many legislators understood that we should never put equal rights on the ballot for the popular vote, and that the tyranny of the majority should not be allowed to take away the rights of the minority."
Asked how he felt about his use of the process, Brimingham said he felt "very good about it."
"Everybody recognizes a vote to adjourn was a vote up or down on [the amendment]," he said.
Birmingham bristled when a reporter compared his actions yesterday to former Senate president William M. Bulger's refusal to allow a term limits amendment to the floor in 1992. Bulger had simply gaveled the session out repeatedly, Birmingham said. He himself has done that only once, last month.
"I did gavel the last constitutional convention to a recess because I felt the members needed more time to assess" the matter, Birmingham said. "Today we saw democracy in action. They may not like it, but they lost two to one."
Lafferty said his group was exploring legal options yesterday, but they are few. Acting Governor Jane Swift could call legislators back into session, but could not compel them to vote on the issue. In any case, Swift opposes the ballot question and would not reconvene a constitutional convention, said her spokesman James Borghesani.
Advocates for the amendment have argued it would simply define marriage as between one man and one woman. Opponents say it goes much further, not only defining marriage but paving the way for legal challenges to domestic partnership benefits - such as health insurance and bereavement leave - for gay and lesbian couples who are employed by the state or municipalities.
The amendment reads: "... only the union of one man and one woman shall be ... recognized as a marriage in Massachusetts. Any other relationship shall not be recognized as a marriage or its legal equivalent, nor shall it receive the benefits or incidents exclusive to marriage from the Commonwealth, its agencies, departments, authorities, commissions, offices, officials and political subdivisions."
State Senator Cheryl A. Jacques, a leading opponent of the ballot question, conceded yesterday that her victory might not have been pretty. But she was no less satisfied for that.
"We had a recorded vote to adjourn," she said. "I'm proud to have done anything possible to defeat this hate-filled, discriminatory measure. I'll take a victory on this any way I can get it."