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Delayed, not denied

NO PRINCIPLED argument justified the Legislature's decision late yesterday to delay portions of the state Constitutional Convention -- including consideration of the amendment to ban gay marriage -- until after the state elections in November. Still, delay is far better than killing the proposal by refusing to take it up, or by other legislative trickery.

Senate President Robert Travaglini has indicated he intends to put the proposed amendment before the convention, as the state constitution requires. If he does that when the session reconvenes on Thursday, Nov. 9, he will have carried out his responsibility.

It will then be up to the legislators to decide whether to move the issue on to the next Legislature, which could put it on the ballot in 2008. Only 50 votes -- one-quarter of the membership -- are required from each Legislature.

We believe strongly that the amendment deserves a resounding defeat. The extra four months for public debate could contribute to that defeat if it is informed by experience rather than the name-calling and hyperbole that have been heard from some advocates on both sides.

Same-sex marriage will have been legal in Massachusetts for 2 1/2 years when the legislators reconvene. This is not enough time to add appreciably to evidence about the well-being of children brought up by same-sex parents, although the evidence so far has mostly been positive. But it is enough time for more citizens to decide whether gay couples make good neighbors, or pose any kind of a threat to heterosexuals. So far, experience has shown few if any problems.

Many gay-marriage advocates who are working hard to keep the issue off the 2008 ballot were heartened at yesterday's action, even though it will probably keep the issue alive in this year's campaign. And in fact the delay needn't produce a nasty debate if proponents on both sides focus on the real consequences of same-sex marriage in the state.

It is true that some of those who would vote in November would be lame ducks, headed out of office by retirement or defeat, but this should not change many votes. The great majority of legislators have already been recorded on the issue one way or another.

When they do vote, and we assume it is when, not if, the legislators should vote their conscience, not simply pass the decision along to the electorate. The constitution asks for their judgment on what amendments should go to the voters, and they should exercise it.

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