ON MAY 17, it now seems certain, a number of gay couples will go to city and town offices across Massachusetts to be married. Other celebrations will also take place that day -- commemorating the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education.
The coincidence resonates, especially since -- as last week's State House debate made clear -- the progress of gay rights is very much an issue of civil rights.
And while no definitive action was taken by the constitutional convention, there was progress. Some legislators who resisted gay rights now support social acceptance of gay couples, the right to adopt and raise children, and, under a "civil union" rubric, giving them all the rights and responsibilities of marriage. Having gone this far, it is only a small step to give up exclusive heterosexual use of the word "marriage." Perhaps a clear majority will have reached that point when the convention reconvenes in March.
Last week's debate was passionate, historic, and healthy. Legislators, many telling stories from their own lives, described what they saw as their duty in deciding whether to amend the state Constitution to ban gay marriage.
Speaker after speaker made that clear as they talked about the pain such an amendment would bring to themselves or colleagues.
"Liz, this is for you," said Representative Shaun Kelly, referring to Elizabeth Malia, an openly gay representative. Kelly said a compromise on granting gays and lesbians civil unions would "keep Liz and others as nine-10ths of a citizen."
On the other side, Representative David Flynn said he had alienated someone in his family by doing what he believed was right -- voting against gay marriage. "I say to that member of the family, I love you and want you back."
The one troubling moment came at the start, when House Speaker Thomas Finneran sought to inflame the members by charging that the Supreme Judicial Court had blamed the Legislature for a marriage restriction that was rooted "in animus and bigotry." Finneran said this "slur" was "libelous and defamatory of this institution." The court did suggest that the restriction "is rooted in persistent prejudices." But the words Finneran used do not appear anywhere in the court's majority decision or its advisory opinion.
Finneran's attempt to stir up resentment should be seen for what it was: a desperate, fabricated effort to make the court the issue and divert attention from a question of fundamental civil rights for many thousands of Massachusetts citizens.
If the legislators are calm and thoughtful when they consider more constitutional amendments on March 11, they will not tinker with a document designed to insure liberty, not diminish it.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.