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Gay marriage ban wins preliminary approval, but final support uncertain

BOSTON -- Massachusetts lawmakers gave preliminary approval Thursday to a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage but legalize civil unions as the state again took center stage in the national debate over the rights of same-sex couples to wed.


The amendment, which would strip gay couples of their court-granted marriage rights, must still weather several additional votes and anticipated legislative maneuvering by opponents, who said the vote was all part of their strategy to ultimately defeat a ban.

The earliest a ban could end up on a statewide ballot is November 2006, more than two years after same-sex couples can start getting married in Massachusetts.

It was adopted 129-69 with the help of several known advocates of gay marriage, triggering speculation that they could withdraw their support on the critical final vote needed before this year's constitutional convention ends.

"Our ultimate goal is to have no anti-gay amendment on the ballot, so it seems strange that we're glad about the way this vote turned out, but it moves us forward towards that end," Arline Isaacson, co-leader of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, explained to hundreds of supporters outside the House chamber.

Due to the elaborate constitutional-amendment process, the ban must be approved by the Legislature at least three more times this year -- perhaps as soon as Thursday night -- and then again during the 2005-06 legislative session. Shortly after this initial vote, legislators broke for dinner and were planning reconvene at 6:45 p.m.

Under a landmark high court decision issued in November and reaffirmed in February, gay marriage will become legal in Massachusetts on May 17 -- two and a half years before any constitutional amendment could go on the ballot for popular approval.

The vote in favor of the ban occurred against a backdrop of renewed protests on Beacon Hill, where the Legislature resumed its constitutional convention after a monthlong hiatus filled with behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Ron Crews, head of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which has led the opposition of gay marriage, acknowledged the outcome still remained unclear, but was encouraged.

"The silver lining out of this is you saw a desire here to protect marriage," he said.

The first constitutional convention ended after three versions of a ban met narrow defeats during two days of passionate debate, pitting civil rights for gay couples against the desire to preserve the traditional definition of marriage.

While the national landscape has shifted dramatically since lawmakers last convened, with unsanctioned gay marriages occurring across the country and President Bush endorsing a federal amendment, the spotlight remained on Massachusetts -- the first state to legalize gay marriages.

"No Hatred. Just loving biblical truth," read posters held by some of the opponents of gay marriage who gathered on the Statehouse steps.

Lynn Tibbets, 50, of Boston, held a sign urging "No discrimination in the constitution."

"It used to just make me mad -- the people on the other side. Now it just makes me sad," Tibbets, a financial management consultant, said as she choked back tears.

If an amendment wins final approval, House Speaker Thomas Finneran has said he will seek to prevent the issuance of marriage licenses -- and the potential legal confusion it could cause -- until the voters are able to weigh in on the amendment.

Gov. Mitt Romney, who opposes gay marriage, has said he would also seek to avoid the legal confusion, but has committed to following the law as it exists May 17.

The crowds began gathering outside the Statehouse at 6 a.m. and by midday more than 3,000 people had filed through security checkpoints into the building, while 1,000 others rallied outside. Hundreds of gay-marriage supporters resumed their post outside the House chambers, singing patriotic hymns and protest ballads, as they did for hours on the last day of the February debate, forcing lawmakers to walk through their ranks as they went to take successive votes on the amendment.

Many opponents of gay marriage came to the Statehouse wearing baseball hats with crosses on them and shirts bearing biblical phrases, promoting heterosexual marriage. Interspersed among the singers, they prayed silently and sang competing hymns.

"Unfortunately, they believe we don't like them," said Maria Reyes, 51, of Boston, an elementary school teacher who came to support a same-sex marriage ban with the Hispanic Baptist Church in Boston. "That's not the issue here. We need to obey God's will."

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Gay couples in Mass.:
The 2000 Census estimated there were about 19,000 gay couples in Mass., and about 659,000 nationwide, or less than 1 percent of households. Provincetown is the community in Mass. with the highest rate of gay partners, about 15 percent of households.
Mass. legislators
The typical Massachusetts legislator is a 50-year-old, white, male, Roman Catholic, Massachusetts-born, married Democrat with two children and a graduate degree (about half are law degrees) who ran unopposed in the last election, according to Boston Globe research and analysis.
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