Mass. activists on both sides ready to help

Massachusetts couples celebrated their first anniversaries at the State House in May 2005. Massachusetts couples celebrated their first anniversaries at the State House in May 2005. (ESSDRAS SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF/FILE)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 16, 2008

With California poised to allow same-sex marriage, battle-worn activists in the Bay State said yesterday that Massachusetts is about to be thrust into the spotlight again, this time as an object lesson in the practical ramifications and political implications of allowing gays to wed.

Those advocates said the spotlight will only intensify over the next several months, as Californians opposed to their high court's decision push for a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage that is likely to appear on the ballot in November. A similar push for an amendment in Massachusetts sparked an epic fight before ultimately failing on Beacon Hill last June.

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes same-sex marriage, said Massachusetts, as the first and only other state to legalize gay marriage, would be a case study, and he expressed hope that Californians would approve the proposed constitutional ban.

Calling the California court ruling "an outrageous act of judicial activism" and an "assault on democracy," Mineau asserted: "The lessons to draw out of Massachusetts will be that this was done by judicial edict. The people need to take back democracy."

Gay-rights advocates said they hoped - and expected - that the largely uneventful aftermath to the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts would show Californians that there's nothing to fear.

"We're going to do everything we can to make sure that people focus on and see what we have here in Massachusetts, and that marriage equality is good, and it's good for same-sex couples, and it's good for the Commonwealth," said Marc Solomon, the executive director of MassEquality, a leading group in support of gay marriage. "It's important that people take a close look at the one place that has it and learn from our example."

Even as the activists braced for a flood of attention from California, there were celebrations in the South End, a center of Boston's gay community.

At Club Cafe on Columbus Avenue, bartender Mark LaPlante interrupted a lunch meeting of the Greater Boston Business Council, a group for gay business people, to give them word of the ruling. They erupted in applause, he said.

"I love it," LaPlante said of the ruling, adding that bans on gay marriage "are just silly, anyway."

"It's awesome - two thumbs-up!" exulted Anna Haas, 23, who was working behind the counter at Francesca's Café on Tremont Street. "If any state were the next to allow gay marriage, it should be California. It's so diverse, and it's definitely liberal."

The California court's 4-to-3 decision struck down two state laws, including one approved by the voters in 2000, that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The decision, which takes effect in 30 days, was made almost four years after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made this the first state to allow gay marriage.

The legal underpinnings of the two high court decisions differed. The California court ruled that marriage is a "fundamental right" of all citizens - a more sweeping finding than the one from the Massachusetts court, which legalized gay marriage because all citizens are guaranteed "equal protection" under the law, said Mary L. Bonauto, the lead attorney in the Massachusetts case.

"This is not a little ripple in a pond," said Bonauto, the civil rights project director at Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. "This is a wave. This is big. What Massachusetts did was extraordinarily significant. Someone had to be first. But having the second state be the largest in the country, with an influential judiciary, makes it quite a powerhouse."

Many activists on both sides said they expected to be called upon to share their experiences, and their advice with their allies on the West Coast. Still, as people distilled the news and pored over the ruling, it was too early to tell how active local advocates would become in California.

But there was no question that the Massachusetts experience would be preeminent.

"Massachusetts will provide a case study to Californians, and really many other states, on what happens in this situation - what our opponents do and how the gay community should respond," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

"We really are a case study in how our community won," said Isaacson, who helped lead the fight to defeat the proposed ban in Massachusetts, "so they're going to be coming here to see what we did right and what we did wrong and why we managed to prevail."

Even as they celebrated the decision yesterday, gay-rights activists expressed concern that Californians would experience gay marriages for only about five months before they could be asked to ban them in November. The ban will be sent to the ballot if state officials on June 18 certify the more than 1 million signatures activists have collected in support of it.

"The one lesson from here is the longer they can retain the right to marry, the less fearful of it Californians will be," Isaacson said. "The fear of the unknown is one of the worst enemies."

Governor Deval Patrick alluded to lessons learned in a statement he issued on the ruling.

"Our experience in Massachusetts has taught us that whenever we affirm the right of people to come before their government as equals, we all win," Patrick said. "I congratulate the California court for upholding that principle."

In addition to the political ramifications, the ruling could diminish Massachusetts' ability to draw gay professionals by using its status as the one state that allows gay marriage, some said.

"There may be some people who will stay put in California or will choose to go to California because their families are going to have the same kind of protections we have here in Massachusetts," said Jeffrey F. Webb, a partner in the Boston law firm of McDermott Will & Emery.

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