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Vote the ban down

GAY MARRIAGE has earned respect in Massachusetts, and for the most part has been given it.

Opponents, however, are seeking to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, a process that would tarnish the 226-year-old constitution by using it as an instrument of discrimination. The amendment deserves a resounding defeat.

Legislators face a difficult tactical choice next week, however, with many advocates of gay marriage urging the leaders to scuttle the amendment by ignoring the constitution's own mandate and ducking a vote altogether. This would be a mistake, and short-sighted. Legislators should not violate the constitution in order to protect it.

The wording in the constitution is clear, that such proposed amendments ``shall . . . be laid before a joint session of the two houses," and that a failure to vote requires a governor to call a special session. But no sanctions are listed and the constitution is not self-enforcing. So there have been occasions, as in 2002 on a similar proposal, when the constitutional convention was adjourned without ever considering amendments, no special session was held and the issues died.

The call to repeat this action is strong and understandable.

We share the belief of many that gay marriage is essentially a civil rights issue and the state Supreme Judicial Court was correct in November 2003, in recognizing it as a fundamental right.

Few would want to put voting rights or school desegregation at risk in a popular referendum.

We hope and believe that before very long the right of same-sex couples to marry will be seen as protected by the United States Constitution. Certainly the effort of opponents to amend the federal constitution to nullify that right betrays a fear that it exists.

Until that time, it is difficult to define rights -- property rights?, privacy rights? -- that should be exempt from abridgement by state constitutional amendments. The best course is for legislators to meet Wednesday and deny the proposal the required 50 votes. Failing that, efforts should be redoubled to deny the 50 votes required in the 2007-2008 Legislature. Failing that, the amendment should be, and we believe would be, soundly defeated on the 2008 ballot. Opponents' arguments grow thinner by the day. The strong institution of marriage is threatened, they say, but where is the threat? After 26 months and counting, there is none.

Civic and business leaders are right to worry that a full-blown campaign in 2008 would be divisive and distracting.

But the tension that now exists will not be relieved if opponents of gay marriage, who chafe at the narrow SJC ruling, are denied a legitimate vote in the Legislature because of political trickery.

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