This battle's worth a fight
Governor-elect Deval Patrick demonstrated the difference between campaigning and governing yesterday when his 11thhour appeal to legislators to block a procedural vote aimed at banning gay marriage proved to be as ineffectual as it was eloquent.
The passion and the timing of Patrick's declaration that "a vote to advance this question to the 2008 ballot is irresponsible and wrong" took even the most ardent legislative supporters of same-sex marriage aback. Declaring, as Patrick did just before a joint session of the Legislature met in constitutional convention, that "it's time to move on" is the stuff of scripted stump speeches. Moving votes is what matters on Beacon Hill and, in that, Patrick's effort was too little and it came too late.
If, as Patrick said, it is a "dangerous precedent and an unworthy one for this Commonwealth " to use "the initiative process to give a minority fewer freedoms than the majority and to inject the state into fundamentally private affairs," why did he wait so long to inject himself into this critical debate?
The urgent need to reassure Massachusetts legislators that adjournment without a vote was a responsible course of action had been clear since last week when the state Supreme Judicial Court chastised lawmakers for recessing in November rather than voting on the merits of the constitutional amendment that would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. In essence, the state's highest court forced lawmakers to choose between fulfilling their constitutional obligation to the petitioners and upholding the constitutional rights of same-sex couples.
For the Democratic governor-elect, who has agreed with the SJC's description of gay marriage as a "basic human right," the choice should have been immediate and unambiguous. But it was not until yesterday that Patrick finally said: "I favor ending this initiative petition promptly. If adjournment can accomplish that, so be it."
Making a few phone calls and buttonholing a couple of lawmakers in the State House in a last-minute attempt to turn some votes was not enough for Patrick to block the effort of what he rightly described as "a few individuals" determined "to insert discrimination into our Constitution."
Only 50 legislators had to approve the amendment to move it forward; on two separate votes yesterday, 61 did. If the amendment wins the support of 25 percent of the 200-member Legislature again next year, it will be on the ballot in 2008.
That means, of course, that this fight is not over. The struggle for civil rights is never a short or easy one, as the history of race relations in this country certainly confirms. Supporters of gay marriage, and gay people themselves, can only hope that Patrick shares their stamina as surely as he echoes their rhetoric. His statement yesterday might give them pause.
"Whatever one's views of marriage equality, all can agree that we have far more pressing issues before the Legislature and the Commonwealth," he said. "It serves no public interest to focus more time and attention on this issue when there are under served and under performing schools, an infrastructure showing signs of sustained neglect, gun and gang violence on the rise, jobs and people leaving the state, a growing homeless population, soaring healthcare costs, a looming deficit, and a score of other serious challenges crying out for the attention and creativity of the government and the people. We cannot in good conscience ask these unmet needs to wait while a few individuals try to insert discrimination into our Constitution."
Neither can we in good conscience pretend that the bigotry toward homosexuals, as old as the Bible and as fresh in our memory as last year's fatal attack at a gay bar in New Bedford, can be wished away or ruled away by one decision of one high court in the still-divided Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Tomorrow, this becomes Deval Patrick's fight, too.
Eileen McNamara is Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.