America's debate over gay marriage entered a decisive phase Wednesday, as Massachusetts lawmakers held a constitutional convention to consider amendments that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
But an impassioned day of debate ended with two such amendments failing to muster the needed votes. It was a victory, for now at least, for those who support gay marriage in a state that is now America's central battleground on the issue.
The issue moved to the forefront of public debate last fall when the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled unconstitutional any law that denies men the right to marry men, and women the right to marry women.
Such weddings can begin this spring, but opponents of gay marriage hope to block it in the longer term by amending the constitution - a move that would begin at this current constitutional convention and end with a statewide ballot in November 2006.
But amendments fashioned by house and senate leaders failed to receive the majority support needed. One of the votes was a nailbiter, 98-100. Although it is possible that other versions could pass Thursday, the two Wednesday votes represented a win for supporters of gay marriage.
"I think they have plenty of reason to be pleased," says Charles Baron, a law professor at Boston College.
Indeed, in the capitol's Hall of Flags room, where televisions displaying the proceedings were set up, crowds jumped from the ground and applauded jubilantly when the first amendment banning gay marriage failed by two votes. Dozens of same-sex couples embraced, while several cried. Lisa Stoddard and Brienne Smith immediately asked a person nearby to snap a photograph of them as they stood in front of a cheering room filled mostly with gay-marriage supporters.
"I am in love with her, and even though neither of us is ready to get married, we love that we might get the opportunity," said Ms. Stoddard of Somerville, Mass.
Many same-sex couples expressed appreciation for the legislators who, they said, spoke with unexpected passion and eloquence. "I'm really proud to be a citizen of this state right now," said Ms. Smith, also of Somerville.
Legislators debated the first amendment for close to two hours. Many of those in support argued that marriage as a union between a man and a woman was an ancient institution validated by Judeo-Christian tradition.
"Every society, every culture, every nation in all of recorded history, including Massachusetts, has up until this point at least defined marriage as one man and one woman," said House Speaker Thomas Finneran (D).
Several legislators rose in opposition, calling gay marriage a question of civil rights and likening their vote to the landmark 1954 US Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools.
After the hair's-breadth failure of the first amendment came a second, proposed by Senate President Robert Travaglini (D). It too defined marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, but granted same-sex couples the right to have civil unions, which provide the same legal and financial benefits of marriage. The amendment was viewed as a compromise by which the legislature could broaden the rights of gay couples, who would otherwise be left without any additional benefits if gay marriage were banned altogether. It also represented the complex preferences of a legislature dominated by Catholics with conservative views about marriage, who nonetheless espouse liberal political philosophies. But the amendment failed by even a greater margin, reflecting the difficulty of forging a compromise on the issue.
"The religious right groups don't want to recognize it," says E.J. Graff, author of the book "What is Marriage For?" "And the gay activists just won the whole enchilada [from the SJC], so they don't want to give either."
Throughout the proceedings, advocates supporting both sides of the issue gathered on the sidewalk in front of the capitol, holdings dueling signs that read "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" and "Civil Unions: Sitting on the Back of the Bus." Inside, meanwhile, hundreds more gathered across the building from the House gallery, chanting in front of a painting of Massachusetts soldiers who fought and died during World War I. Some held up signs saying "Let the People Vote," while others shouted "What do we want! Marriage. When do we want it? Now!"
Significantly outnumbered among the gathered crowd, religious groups supporting an amendment were quietly disappointed with the vote. Several knelt and prayed during the midst of the convention. One couple that believes nature dictates marriage as a union between a man and a woman said they had been praying for several weeks about the convention. "We basically are asking that God's will be done," says Richard Regan, a retired math teacher and Catholic from Arlington, Mass.
Some outside observers said the seriousness of passing a constitutional amendment might have caused some legislators to not vote for either, although they earlier might have offered support.
"I think in this country we take very seriously the idea of what ought to be put into our constitutions," said Professor Baron.
Although the legislature's failure to adopt any restrictions on the court's order signaled a victory for gay marriage supporters, the legislature plans to reconvene at noon Thursday, at which point it would consider another gay marriage ban similar to that offered by Speaker Finneran. The leadership suggested that others amendments might be offered that responded to the failure of the earlier votes.
"Clearly ... the issues have been refined," said Finneran.