After playing a key role in the efforts to fight legalization of gay marriage a year ago, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said yesterday that he now favors allowing legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and that he will oppose any efforts to ban them.
In an interview yesterday, Reilly, an unannounced Democratic candidate for governor, struck a tone that is far different from the public posture he held for several years. Reilly said he was ''moved" by the same-sex marriages that took place after gay marriage was legalized May 17, and added that he would vote against a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage if it reaches the 2006 state ballot.
''Once rights are given, they should not be taken away," Reilly said.
Reilly would not take a position on whether a proposed constitutional amendment should go before the ballot, saying he defers to the Legislature to make that decision. He also said he still holds a personal belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Some of Reilly's supporters say he has evolved since a year ago, when he supported civil unions but opposed gay marriage. He insisted that his role as attorney general has been to enforce the law and that he has been consistent since March in saying that he would not favor taking away marriage rights once they were granted.
''We all have evolved as a state," he said yesterday. ''This is not a change in my beliefs. I have been consistent. What has changed is that May 17 came and went, and people entered into marriage. . . . No one has been hurt."
Reilly added: ''You couldn't help but be moved by the commitments and marriages that people have entered into."
With his move to support legalized gay marriage, Reilly puts himself at odds with Governor Mitt Romney, whom Reilly may run against in 2006. Romney opposes gay marriage and supports the proposed amendment that would ban gay marriage and allow civil unions.
Tim O'Brien, the executive director of the state Republican Party, accused Reilly of having ''completely flip-flopped" on the issue because he needs to answer to a special-interest group within the Democratic Party.
Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's director of communications, portrayed the governor as remaining ''consistent and principled" on the issue. ''The governor believes that an issue as important as the redefinition of marriage should be decided by the people," he said. ''People have been allowed to decide this issue in more than a dozen states around the country. There is no reason for denying the people of Massachusetts that vote."
During the heated debate over same-sex marriage, Reilly came under sharp attack from gay and lesbian leaders for his role and statements.
Reilly's office acts as the state's top lawyer and, in that role, fought gay marriage supporters in the historic Goodrich case that led the Supreme Judicial Court to legalize gay marriage. He also joined with Romney in enforcing a 1913 law that barred out-of-state same-sex couples from marrying in Massachusetts.
Reilly's legal brief in the SJC case argued against legalizing same-sex marriages and questioned whether gay and lesbian parents are as good parents as heterosexual parents. Reacting to an uproar from gay leaders, he removed the language from the brief and expressed regret it was included.
He further strained his relationship with gay activists when he criticized the SJC's ruling in November 2003, saying a momentous change in social policy should be left to the Legislature. He also insisted that the 4-to-3 court ruling left room for lawmakers to create a separate civil union system for gay and lesbian couples that afforded the same benefits and privileges of marriage.
Yesterday, Reilly's statements seemed to do little to placate his critics in the gay community. Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said that she found it disturbing that Reilly would not oppose an effort to place what she says is a civil rights issue on the ballot.
''If he is now saying that he doesn't believe our rights should be taken away, we welcome that, but we need someone who would play a leadership role in this debate and stand up and say . . . that a civil rights question should not be placed on the ballot," she said.
Susan Ryan-Vollmar, editor of Bay Windows, New England's largest gay and lesbian newspaper, said members of the state's gay and lesbian communities remain ''furious" with Reilly. ''From my conversations and from the feedback my reporters are getting, there is real resentment out there," Ryan-Vollmar said. ''When the subject comes up of Reilly running for governor, it runs from 'over my dead body' to 'he is going to have to really grovel.' "
As he ramps up his campaign for next year's governor's race, Reilly is actively seeking meetings with gay and lesbian leaders, hoping he can calm some of the anger that has been directed at him. The former Democratic National Committee chairman, Steve Grossman, is trying to set up meetings at his Newton home for Reilly and the state's gay leadership.
Grossman, a supporter of gay marriage, said yesterday that Reilly has ''evolved, grown, and matured" as attorney general and will continue to do so as a candidate.
''I have an enormous respect for Tom Reilly that he is willing to move to a new position on this issue and others," Grossman said. ''I don't want a governor who will dig in and say, 'I will never change.' "