Massachusetts, the only state in the US where gay couples can legally marry, is now much closer to letting the voters decide whether to stick with gay marriage or change the state constitution to ban it.
State legislators, meeting in a constitutional convention Tuesday, took one of two big steps toward putting the issue on the 2008 ballot. Their vote keeps alive a citizen-led initiative to amend the constitution to prevent same-sex marriage, ensuring that the debate over one of the most contentious social issues in America is not finished in Massachusetts.
Gay marriage has been legal in the state since May 2004, after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled Massachusetts' practice of denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples violated its constitution. The ruling applied only in Massachusetts. Twenty-seven other states have amended their constitutions to explicitly prohibit gay marriage.
Now, the stage appears to be set for a major battle in Massachusetts over the issue – one that is likely to draw big money, political muscle, and media from across the country. Polling over the past three years gives both sides reason to hope they could win a popular vote.
The stakes of a ballot vote are high. Either voters would ratify same-sex marriage for the first time, or they would kick it off its only toehold in the United States.
"It would be a national issue, and lots of money would be brought in on both sides," says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "I think ultimately, if it came to a vote in Massachusetts, the pro-gay-marriage side would win. I think the polls show that, and over time people have become more comfortable with it."
The most recent statewide poll, taken this past November, found that 62 percent of residents oppose an amendment to ban same-sex marriage; 30 percent support it. But gay-marriage advocates are hardly resting easy. "We've seen in other states that these kind of campaigns can be both very vicious and very emotional, and depending on who has how much money, that can have an impact," says Lee Swislow, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Advocate Defenders, a New England group.
Surveys have seesawed since the state supreme court ruling in November 2003. In the days after the decision, two newspaper polls – one surveying registered voters, the other residents – found roughly 50 percent support for gay marriage, with 38 percent opposed. But by January 2004, a Zogby International poll found nearly the opposite – 52 percent of likely voters opposed to gay marriage, 42 percent supporting.
"This is conjecture, but I think that initially ... people thought: 'Sure, what the heck, let's allow it.' Then when the decision actually happened, people might have gotten a little bit concerned: 'Oh, wow, what does this mean?' " says Gerry Chervinsky, a pollster who has surveyed attitudes about gay marriage in Massachusetts. Most recently, voters seemed to relax, he says, perhaps after determining the change had little impact on their own lives.
A similar short-term spike in opposition to gay marriage happened at the national level. Polling by the Pew Research Center shows gradual rises in support for gay marriage over the past 10 years, except for a significant drop between late 2003 and the 2004 election. But by 2006, support for gay marriage had reached a new high of 39 percent, with 51 percent opposing. Support has since ebbed slightly.
The catalyst for the strong opposition appears to be the US Supreme Court ruling on sodomy in 2003 and the Massachusetts court decision later that year, says Scott Keeter, director of survey research at Pew.
"There may just be a sort of status quo, libertarian perspective that people have about a lot of things. That is, if they aren't thinking about it, then it's a matter of, 'Well, it's not bothering me right now, so it's OK,' " says Mr. Keeter. "But then when it's in the news, people who, for religious reasons or other values they have, are really not inclined to support gay marriage ... may bring their opinions more into line with some of those values."
If the issue gets on the Massachusetts ballot, a similar dynamic could emerge. What's unclear is whether opposition to gay marriage has waned in Massachusetts because – as many observers suggest – voters perceive that little harm has come of the 8,500 same-sex unions that have already taken place.
"That's baloney, because the consequences of such a sweeping social change are not going to be seen in the first couple of months or first couple of years," says Evelyn Reilly, director of public policy at the Massachusetts Family Institute, a group leading the push for a constitutional ban.
Support for gay marriage, she worries, obscures the centrality of procreation in marriage, leading to fewer children raised by two married parents of opposite genders. "Children need both," says Ms. Reilly.
It's a message that resonates particularly with evangelical Christians and churchgoing Roman Catholics. Churches gathered 120,000 of the total 170,000 signatures on the petition, Reilly says.
If gay-marriage opponents plan to focus their message on child rearing, supporters present the issue as one of basic civil rights.
Lisa Forest stood outside the State House Tuesday carrying a sign that asks: "Did we vote on your marriage?" Ms. Forest married another woman in November. "I don't believe that civil rights should be voted on," she says. The amendment's wording should exempt those same-sex couples already married.
For the amendment to appear on the '08 ballot, the state legislature must approve the initiative once more in the coming year.