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Revisiting gay marriage

So, does this week's Constitutional Convention -- in which the Legislature will, once again, take up the issue of gay marriage -- even matter anymore?

It has been clear for months now that the anti-gay marriage lobby was losing steam on Beacon Hill. With last week's ruling by Attorney General Thomas Reilly that an initiative to ban same-sex marriage can go before the voters in 2008, there is even less of a rationale for legislators who may have been on the fence to embrace the compromise bid for civil unions.

Even Senate President Robert Travaglini, cosponsor of the amendment set to go down this week, sounded philosophical about his bill's prospects. He declined yesterday to predict an outcome of the vote, but he acknowledged to reporters several days ago that Reilly's ruling effectively killed the prospects for his would-be compromise.

Reilly was roasted by advocates for gay marriage, not surprisingly. He was accused of playing politics when, really, the better political decision would have been to rule against the initiative. But when you're running for governor, every decision is viewed as political.

Perhaps faring better was Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, who used the opportunity to draw another distinction between herself and Governor Mitt Romney by declaring her support for civil unions. Although gay marriage proponents have no interest in civil unions, she appeared ''moderate," almost reasonable.

The idea of gay marriage going before voters is anathema to proponents, and understandably so. No one would want to fight three more long years to defend a right that's already been won. And even though I believe a ban on gay marriage would be voted down by Massachusetts voters, that doesn't change the possibility that voters could take away a constitutional right.

This Constitutional Convention figures to be conducted in a less emotional atmosphere than the last. But one thing that has not changed is that this remains an issue with no discernible middle ground. Civil unions, despite what moderate Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees want to believe, aren't supported by either side. No one wants anything to do with them.

In polls and interviews of voters, two things seem clear. One is that a majority of Massachusetts voters have made their peace with same-sex marriage. The other is that many voters want a chance to vote on it.

Whether they will ever get that opportunity is far from clear. The proposal to ban gay marriage certified by Reilly has many more hurdles to clear, including the collection of 65,825 signatures and approval by two successively elected Legislatures. That's far from a certainty.

When the Legislature last visited this issue, there was concern that it was a political hot potato. That anxiety has evaporated on Beacon Hill, as many voters seem to regard the issue with relative indifference.

It just doesn't directly affect as many lives as, say, healthcare reform. It seems doubtful that anyone on either side will be risking his or her seat by a vote on gay marriage.

That will probably soften the tone inside the building, as Travaglini acknowledged.

''It is my hope that the discussion will continue to be dignified and controlled and respectful," he said yesterday.

Reilly's ruling is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which could reverse it. Should it choose not to, legislators can look forward to spending the next several years voting on gay marriage ballot questions. Fortunately, they're getting used to it.

Just a few years ago, the Legislature ducked the question of gay marriage. Then, forced to deal with it by the SJC ruling, it acquitted itself with grace. Now, the issue is back before the legislators, and it seems unlikely that it is going away any time soon.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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