Hours before debate on gay marriage began in the House chamber yesterday, a group of parishioners from Woburn's Anchor Baptist Church joined the crowds of 1,500 supporters and foes arguing outside the State House.
Civility quickly fell away.
The parishioners -- many of them children, some as young as 7 -- held signs that read, "Remember Sodom and Gomorrah."
A gay man argued with the group.
"God does love you," an adult parishioner told the man. Another urged him to repent.
Then the name-calling began. A black teenager in the church group yelled an antigay slur at the man. The man returned fire with a racial slur. "How do you like it?" the man said, as the boy retreated to the back of the group, shocked.
"Let him burn in hell!" yelled a girl of about 10 from the church group.
Yesterday's constitutional convention on whether to ban same-sex marriage unleashed public passion and venom rarely seen on Beacon Hill. The confrontation, seen on news broadcasts all over the country, drew thousands of ordinary people to the State House. Protesters argued over homosexuality, screamed themselves hoarse and in some cases knelt in prayer.
Inside the building, almost 4,000 people crowded the hallways outside the third floor House chamber, supporters of the amendment to ban gay marriage wearing yellow stickers, those opposed wearing white ones. Only 150 people were admitted into the chamber at a time, some lining up at 7:30 a.m. for tickets.
Security was tight, but there were no arrests. State Police controlled the crowds.
"To be here today and to see white stickers versus yellow stickers, it's very polarizing," Jill Seaman, 27, a college administrator who supports gay marriage and was admitted to the chamber. "These people," she said, referring to gay marriage opponents, "they could be my colleagues or my neighbors or just people I pass on the street."
Jenny Whatley, an advocate on the other side, had been first in line for her ticket.
"We want to hold our legislators accountable," said Whatley, 25, a volunteer for the Massachusetts Family Institute, which crafted the original constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage. Whatley, who is from Alabama, said yesterday's outcome "is vital to our nation."
"Homosexual relationships have no proven track record of being of benefit to a society," Whatley said. "They don't produce natural children, and that is one of the purposes of marriage. It's going against natural law."
As the crowds and the cameras gathered on the third floor about 1:30 p.m., a tense group of gay-marriage advocates gathered in front of the television in the office of Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat who proposed a last-minute amendment to insert into the constitution the Supreme Judicial Court's decision granting gays the right to marry.
The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the court case, Mary Bonauto, sat in a chair in the hallway outside Barrios's office, eating a sandwich, waiting for the session to begin.
When Senator Robert S. Creedon Jr., chairman of Joint Committee on the Judiciary, was passing Bonauto on his way to the chamber, she rose to shake his hand, and said, "Good luck today."
Creedon later voted in favor of the amendment offered by House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran that sought to ban gay marriage and allow the Legislature to create civil unions. Bonauto said she had had no idea how the Brockton Democrat would vote.
"Right now, when all is said and done, it really feels like a moment for those legislators," Bonauto said, after Creedon had gone. "What side of history do you want to stand on?"
Outside the chamber, sides had been chosen, with deafening results. Dueling chants of "let the people vote" and "equality now" were almost swallowed in the din.
Shortly after the start of the session, some gay marriage opponents fell to their knees, eyes shut tight, palms raised to the heavens. Their opponents, standing nearby, chanted, "Separate the church and state."
Gay rights lobbyist Arline Isaacson stood outside the chamber, holding a small battery-operated television to her ear, trying to hear the debate inside. When there was a scuffle between opposing advocates, Isaacson went in to calm the gay advocates.
"If you have any problems with the gay side of this, I can help you," she told a state trooper, who had threatened to eject the offenders. The lobbyists for each side stood shoulder to shoulder in a small, cordoned-off area outside the chamber, worrying.
"It's been a little difficult sleeping at night," said Evelyn T. Reilly, director of public policy for the Massachusetts Family Institute. "You worry about leaving something undone that could have been done. It will be a relief when it's over, if it's over the right way."
Soon, the yelling died down, and the crowd dispersed to watch the debate on television sets in the Great Hall and Gardner Auditorium.