Hub of a culture clash

With this week's vote on gay marriage, Boston becomes a focal point of nation's culture wars.

Oliver Wendell Holmes called Massachusetts's State House "the hub of the solar system." The state's relative influence has dimmed somewhat since the 19th century.

But this week - as lawmakers consider a constitutional amendment on marriage - the portrait-lined hallways and historic chambers of the state capitol are situated at the center of the political universe.

The weight of the moment is visible on lawmakers' faces. As one shuffles his wing-tipped shoes across the marbled floors of the senate building, he conveys the preoccupied look of a man cataloging the many threats against his job offered the past week.

Staffers, meanwhile, struggle to insulate their bosses from the TV crews camped out in the hallways. And then there is the mobilized citizenry who, like modern-day Luthers, leave letters at the doors of their representatives. "Not since 1775 has there been a moment this big," says Rep. Marie Parente (D). "I've never seen such passion in an issue."

Barring last-minute maneuvers, the legislature will meet here Wednesday to vote on an amendment to the state's constitution that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Analysts say the amendment is likely to pass, which could embolden dozens of states to change their constitutions to prevent the legalization of gay marriage. The move might also further validate calls for a federal constitutional amendment.

A November court ruling, re affirmed last week, that gay marriage is a constitutional right, pushed the issue to the front lines of the nation's culture war. "I haven't seen this much activity since just after 9/11," says one Senate aide.

The weight of history

In some ways, it is perhaps fitting that this capital, though only one among 50, is holding a vote that will act as a national plebiscite. The state is home to two groups of partisans, liberal activists and traditional Catholics, who passionately represent the two poles of the gay marriage debate.

Nowhere is a sense of history more evident than beneath the gold-leaf dome of the State House. Portraits of Massachusetts' earliest statesmen, many among the nation's Founding Fathers, hang next to the House Speaker's office. Massachusetts' constitution is the oldest in the country, and the longest functioning in the world. "We have the first constitution ever written, and to change it in such a horrible way would be a crime," says Hillary Goodrich, one of the seven gay couples whose lawsuit prompted the state high court's decision.

Constitutional conventions are convened every year in Massachusetts. But rarely has the legislature ever voted on such a controversial amendment.

The lobbying in the marbled corridors of the statehouse has, as a result, been intense. Telephone messages and emails are clogging phone lines. The office of Senate President Robert Travaglini (D) received more than 3,000 calls last Thursday alone.

On one afternoon, a coalition of clergy supporting gay unions sprawled across the building's hallways like high school students, writing impromptu letters to Senator Travaglini.

Jude Hutchinson of Jamaica Plain, who supports gay marriage, joined dozens of other citizen lobbyists, visiting eight legislators for about 10 minutes each. "With all of the people there, [the legislators] seemed to be getting really nervous about the whole issue," says Ms. Hutchinson.

"Many of them are filled with a tremendous amount of emotion, more than anything they've dealt with," says Charles Martel, a member of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry who has been working the statehouse corridors as well. "Some have said they wish it would be over, that they're exhausted."

Groups opposed to gay marriage say the court's reaffirmation of its decision mobilized its base. People who were hoping for a compromise are now fighting for the amendment. "One young man who had never participated before went into a [lawmaker's] office last week and told her he was going to find someone to run against her if she didn't change her opinion," says Laurie Latourneau of Massachusetts' Voices for Traditional Marriage.

On Sunday, thousands in favor of a constitutional amendment gathered on the Boston Common, across from the capitol, chanting "Let the people vote." Signs read: "Marriage, ancient, sacred."

Many lawmakers are now saying they expect the amendment to pass primarily because so many lawmakers are upset that the court refused to compromise with the legislature. "This is not their [the justices'] job," argues Representative Parente, who says she was going to support civil unions but now has no choice but to support a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. "They set themselves up as some kind of legislative tribunal."

Public opinion

Public opinion here may be hardening against gay marriage as well. A poll released Sunday by Merrimack College's Center for Public Opinion Research showed that 33 percent of Massachusetts residents believe the state should recognize gay marriage, down from 37 percent in November.

If the amendment is adopted, the legislature must approve it again during its next session before the state can hold a public referendum on the issue in 2006. Then, if the ballot measure passes, the state will face the prospect of taking away the marriage certificates that it granted to gay couples over the two-year period.

The importance of the decision is palpable among lawmakers here. "We are reminded in recent weeks of the weight of our jobs," says Sen. Jarrett Barrios.

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