Historic Session Convenes in Boston

Mass. Legislature stalls in constitutional amendment

With thousands of citizens swarming the halls of the statehouse on February 11, members of the Massachusetts Legislature failed to reach a final vote on a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would prohibit same-sex marriage.

The constitutional convention convened at 2 p.m. with legislators quickly moving the same-sex marriage amendment to the head of the agenda. Just after 8:30 p.m., Senate President Robert Travaglini adjourned the convention after the second of two amendments debated throughout the day failed to advance.

The amendment originally forwarded to the convention was sponsored by Rep. Philip Travis and defined marriage as “only the union of one man and one woman.” The amendment would have prohibited the state from providing any legal recognition to same-sex unions.

In order to alter the Travis amendment, a two-thirds vote of the combined 199 legislators would have been required. Final passage of the amendment requires only a simple majority.

The first attempt to veer from the Travis amendment came with a surprise maneuver from House Speaker Thomas Finneran. Finneran took the podium for what were expected to be introductory remarks. Instead, he offered an unexpected amendment that also defined marriage as only the union between one man and one woman, but granted the Legislature the option of creating civil unions for same-sex couples at a later date.

In his remarks, Finneran took aim at the Supreme Judicial Court for not allowing the Legislature to create marriage policy.

“That 4-3 decision has caused extraordinary division and extraordinary controversy,” said Finneran.

The speaker accused the court majority of being “libelous and defamatory” of the Legislature for asserting in its opinion that denial of marriage rights to gay couples constituted “animus and bigotry.” Finneran said that over the years the Legislature has moved to include discrimination protections for gay people, allowed gay people to adopt, and enacted programs to support gay and lesbian youth. He also asserted that prior to the court’s ruling, the Legislature would have brought forth a civil unions bill, had it not been for the indecisiveness of gay advocates.

Several lawmakers who then spoke said it was legislative inaction on the issue of gay marriage that led to the battle now being waged on Beacon Hill. Rep. Cory

In an oration punctuated by several emotional pauses, Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who is African American, told her colleagues that for her, the issue is purely a matter of civil rights and she would not support any amendment giving any group of people separate but equal status.

“I was but one generation removed for slavery,” she said. “And to this day, I hear the name of that dark and ugly history resulting from being almost equal.”

It was common practice in the days of slavery, said Wilkerson, for the slaves to be given the names of their slave masters.

“And if you didn’t know why so many African Americans have surnames ending in ‘son’––like Johnson, Robinson, Wilson, Williamson, and yes, even Wilkerson––you now know that it signifies ownership as in chattel or property.”

Observers weighed in with their analyses of the historic debate.

“Finneran’s amendment was very sneaky,” said Joshua Friedes, political director of the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts. “It said marriage is between a man and a woman. No marriage and we can talk about civil unions. Which of course, we could always talk about civil unions.”

In a rare show of disloyalty to the notoriously iron-fisted speaker, 100 legislators voted against Finneran’s amendment versus 98 in favor, stopping it far short of the two-thirds majority needed to move forward.

The day before the convention, Travaglini and Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees, a Republican, began promoting a compromise position.

Saying that the legislature should “not engage in a divisive, all-or-nothing debate that may end by eliminating all rights for same-sex couples,” the two leaders pitched their proposed compromise in an open letter to their colleagues. Under the amendment put forth by Travaglini and Lees, the state Constitution would be amended in the following ways: only opposite-sex unions would be recognized as marriages; a new institution of “civil unions” would be created, providing same-sex couples “all the benefits, protections, rights, and responsibilities under state law as are granted to spouses in a marriage;” and same-sex couples who received marriage licenses prior to the amendment’s adoption would have their marriage reverted to a civil union.

Despite its attempt at compromise, the Travaglini amendment fared little better than Finneran’s, with 104 votes in favor and 94 opposed.

Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus (MGLPC), said that many of the votes in favor of the Travaglini amendment came from legislators who are hoping to prevent any amendment question from appearing on the ballot.

“The advocates promised to make clear [that] legislators who voted for the Travaglini amendment were not necessarily voting against the gay community,” said Isaacson. “We asked them to vote for that amendment for purely strategic purposes.”

Senator Andy Nuciforo, Jr. explained that he and fellow legislators opposed to a constitutional amendment of any form around same-sex marriage hoped that their votes in favor of Travaglini’s amendment would help their cause in the long run.

“Those members [who voted for Travaglini’s amendment] would prefer to see nothing appear on the ballot in November 2006, but many of us fear that something will appear on the ballot, and if that thing does appear, we want it to be as inoffensive and palatable as possible,” said Nuciforo.

The legislature is expected to reconvene on February 12 to continue debate on the amendment.

Isaacson said Rep. John Rogers is expected to propose an amendment that, like Travaglini’s amendment, would bar same-sex couples from civil marriage and create civil unions for same-sex couples. Isaacson said the Rogers amendment is much shorter and omits the language from Travaglini’s amendment acknowledging that civil unions would deny same-sex couples the federal benefits of marriage.

Nuciforo said that the legislators who voted in favor of the Travaglini amendment at the request of MGLPC would not support Rogers’ amendment. He said legislators are investigating whether they are allowed to introduce a motion to reconsider Travaglini’s amendment on February 12.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), a national conservative organization, said that regardless of what version of the amendment makes it to the ballot, he believes voters will pass an amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, and, “that’s a victory.”

Marty Rouse, who leads MassEquality, an ad hoc coalition of groups fighting to defend the court decision, worried that Finneran, though defeated on his first amendment attempt, may have bought time to prevail in the end.

“The handwriting is clearly on the wall that the House leadership is determined to get one of their amendments through before the convention adjourns,” he said. “The House leader was pulling legislators aside basically trying to buy votes. We are expecting bad news tomorrow.”

The constitutional convention brought thousands of citizens to the state capitol, many for the first time. “It’s only recently, in the last week or so, that I’ve really been following [the amendment battle] closely,” said Stephen Richardson of Somerville. He said he was inspired to attend the convention when he saw a promotional card at a bar urging people to show their opposition to the Travis amendment.

“Combined with the news reports, when I saw this card, it really kind of spurred me into action,” said Richardson. “It really spoke to me when I realized I had a responsibility to come out and show support and to make my voice heard.”

This story first appeared in Bay Windows, the Boston LGBT newspaper.

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