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In lawmaker poll, few back limiting marriage

Political debate shifts to accommodate SJC

The state Senate president and the House majority leader, responding to a Globe survey of Massachusetts legislators, say they would vote against a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions.


The poll, conducted during the week following the Supreme Judicial Court's historic decision Nov. 18 in favor of same-sex marriages, indicated that, of the 94 lawmakers who responded, opponents to the constitutional measure outnumbered backers by a 2-to-1 margin.

However, the situation on Beacon Hill remains fluid, and the majority of lawmakers declined to make public a position on the proposed amendment. The court's ruling is setting off intense lobbying from both proponents and opponents, and those campaigns are expected to accelerate as the Feb. 11 constitutional convention nears.

Some lawmakers are likening the debate to close battles over the death penalty in the 1990s, and say it may be among the most difficult votes of their careers.

Those pushing for the constitutional amendment concede that the SJC ruling, while unclear to many, has nonetheless shifted the political debate from whether to recognize same-sex relationships to how they should be recognized.

The bill's chief sponsor, Democratic Representative Philip Travis of Rehoboth, said he would be inclined to strike language that many interpret as banning civil unions, if that would attract more votes and increase the bill's chances of passage.

"I am doing this in a political realm and the reality is that I want 101 votes," Travis said, referring to the number of votes required for the measure to move on to the next step toward ultimate passage. "This is the most important vote I will participate in in my 21 years in the State House. . . . If I have to amend it to keep the essence together, that is within the latitude of my common sense."

In the 12 days since the state's high court cleared the way for same-sex marriage, a growing number of Massachusetts lawmakers appear to have warmed to the idea of establishing Vermont-style civil unions -- a radical concept on Beacon Hill just two weeks ago -- but many are still balking at allowing the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The notion of civil unions, now favored by Republican Governor Mitt Romney and House Judiciary Chair Eugene L. O'Flaherty, allows politicians to grab a middle ground that offers something to gay rights advocates while still avoiding full-fledged marriage, which is opposed by the Catholic Church and conservative voters.

Of the 94 state senators and representatives who responded to a Boston Globe poll, 60 said they would oppose the Travis bill, which would block state recognition of anything other than a heterosexual couple as the "equivalent" of married. Thirty-one said they would back it, but several Beacon Hill legislators, in response to the survey and in interviews, suggested they would drop their opposition to the amendment proposal if the measure no longer contained language viewed as banning civil unions.

In the Democrat-dominated Legislature, a few Republicans said they would oppose the constitutional amendment: Senator Jo Ann Sprague, Senator Richard R. Tisei, and Representative Shaun P. Kelly.

In voicing opposition to the Travis amendment, many lawmakers did not say they backed same-sex marriage, but rather opposed limiting rights and benefits for gay couples, a requirement that many view civil unions as providing.

"Legislators do not want a constitutional amendment that would prohibit civil unions, but that's about it," said Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and a State House lobbyist.

As a barometer of many lawmakers' indecision, 106 legislators did not reply to the Globe survey or refused to do so, either because they remained confused following the court's decision or because they didn't want their positions disclosed publicly.

The poll results, while not definitive, suggested that the battle over same-sex marriage may well be won between now and Feb. 11, when the Legislature meets in a rare joint session to consider the proposed constitutional amendment.

For a constitutional amendment to pass, a majority of the 200-member Legislature must vote in favor of it at two successive joint sessions. After that, voters must approve the amendment at the ballot box during a subsequent statewide election. The earliest that could happen would be 2006. In the meantime, the SJC's ruling is slated to go into effect this spring, 180 days after the Nov. 18 ruling. House Majority Leader Salvatore F. DiMasi, in responding to the Globe survey, said he has long been a champion of gay rights, and fully supports the court's decision.

"I've always been an advocate," said DiMasi, a Boston Democrat. "If you ask me, if you ask people if they'd stand up for gay marriage, people say no, but if you say would you uphold the SJC's ruling, they'd say yes. It's all how you present it to people.

"These people didn't come from Mars," said DiMasi, a top lieutenant of House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran. "They live here, they're brothers, sisters, cousins, you know them. They're human, and you have to treat them that way."

Finneran, a conservative Democrat, has yet to comment on the SJC's ruling, and a spokesman said he may not do so until January, in the weeks immediately preceding the constitutional vote.

But DiMasi said he believed that Finneran would vote in favor of a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.

In 2002, when a similar amendment, backed by House Ways and Means Chairman John H. Rogers of Norwood, came to the floor, 53 lawmakers said they would back it, Travis said. He said he presumes that he still can count on those lawmakers for support now.

At the July 2002 session, the constitutional vote never took place because a majority of the Legislature, then guided by former Senate president Thomas Birmingham, agreed to avoid the controversial issue by adjourning.

This time around, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini has pledged to let a vote take place. However, he will not vote in favor of it, according to his spokeswoman, Ann Dufresne. Travaglini, who in the past has said he favors civil unions, believes the Travis amendment would block such relationships from being recognized by the state, Dufresne said.

Responses to the Globe's survey suggest that the Feb. 11 debate will be protracted and heated. Those against Travis's amendment likened it to the fight against segregation of the 1950s and 1960s.

"This debate is like the [civil] rights movement," said Representative Robert Spellane, a Worcester Democrat. "To deny these couples the same rights as married couples is unconstitutional and discriminatory."

Others, such as Representative Matthew C. Patrick of Falmouth, said their opposition was largely rooted in a belief that Travis's amendment would water down the state's Bill of Rights by preventing civil unions. He provided the Globe with a copy of a letter he has sent to his constituents since the SJC's landmark ruling.

"To me, a marriage between a man and a woman is a sacrament under the laws of the church," Patrick's letter says. "However, I believe a civil union is a secular law that can be used to recognize the rights, for legal purposes, of gay couples. It will do nothing to diminish the importance of the sacrament."

Patrick's constituent letter highlights that many lawmakers on Beacon Hill are more than a little concerned about the views of the Catholic Church, which has denounced the SJC decision as an attack on the institution of marriage and the sanctioning of what it views as immoral relationships.

Catholic leaders in Massachusetts are fighting on behalf of an amendment like the one authored by Travis, and the church's lobbying arm, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, has contacted several lawmakers seeking to sit down with them.

Several lawmakers who said they would vote in favor of the Travis amendment said their primary concern is that voters have been left out of the decision-making process by the court's ruling. By voting for an amendment, they said, the state's voters would make the ultimate decision on same-sex marriage.

"This is a very divisive issue on many fronts," Representative Jeffrey Perry said in response to the Globe survey. "It is my hope that this issue is ultimately put to the people of the Commonwealth so that all of the voices can be heard."

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