BOSTON — After seven weeks of heated public debate and frantic backroom maneuvering, the Massachusetts Legislature on Monday approved a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and establish civil unions for same-sex couples.
Tense state lawmakers who gathered here for the third installment of a constitutional convention voted 105 to 92 to pass the measure. Before it can become law, however, it must again be approved by both chambers in 2005. If that occurs, it will be presented as a ballot initiative. The earliest that could take place would be November 2006.
The intent was to supersede a ruling by the state's highest court that said affording gays anything less than full marriage rights was unconstitutional. Despite the Legislature's action, the Supreme Judicial Court ruling will take effect May 17, making Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
Monday's narrow vote reflected divisions within the Legislature, whose members agonized in marathon sessions over whether to change the nation's oldest constitution. And when it was all over, few on either side of the debate were celebrating.
Arline Isaacson, co-chairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, called the Legislature's action "very disappointing" because her organization had hoped that no amendment would be passed, allowing the court decision to take effect unchallenged.
"It's almost more painful because the vote was so close," she said. "Thankfully, not that many people in the Legislature support discrimination. But unfortunately, too many of them do."
The response from opponents of same-sex marriage was subdued. Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, called the vote "a meager win in that the definition of marriage is still preserved as the union of one man and one woman."
Crews, who as a Republican legislator in Georgia wrote that state's defense of marriage law, said Monday's action set the stage for Republican Gov. Mitt Romney "to take a stand to delay the implementation of gay marriage on May 17."
At a news conference immediately after the vote, Romney said that by adopting the amendment, the Legislature had created "a conflict" with the Supreme Judicial Court.
"Given this conflict, I believe the Supreme Judicial Court should delay the imposition of its decision until the people have a chance to be heard," said the governor, an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage. He vowed to seek an immediate stay of the court's decision.
But Atty. Gen. Tom Reilly — who represents the state in court and who earlier had pledged to support the Supreme Judicial Court decision that legalized gay marriage — quickly rebuffed the governor, saying he would not seek to delay the May 17 deadline on Romney's behalf. Without court intervention, Monday's vote in the Legislature will not affect the deadline.
An amendment would make Massachusetts only the second state to provide a marriage-like alternative for gay and lesbian couples. The Vermont Legislature in 2000 coined the term "civil union" when it passed the country's first law guaranteeing the rights and benefits of marriage for same-sex couples.
The Massachusetts amendment would extend to gay and lesbian couples who enter civil unions "entirely the same benefits, rights, privileges and obligations as are afforded to married persons." In a hastily added clarification, it also stipulates that "under present federal law, same-sex persons in civil unions will be denied federal benefits available to married persons."
Romney said Monday that he was concerned about what might happen in the interval between May 17 — when town clerks in the state can begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples — and November 2006, when the public could be allowed to vote on the matter.
"We will have created a good deal of confusion," he said, "for the couples involved, for our state, for other states where couples may have moved and for the children of those families."
But some legislators appeared relieved simply to have gotten an amendment passed. The bill endorsed Monday was one of scores of proposals considered by senators and representatives, who offered highly personal reflections about marriage as they debated the issue.
The measure — sponsored by Democratic and GOP leaders of both chambers — was known as "the compromise amendment" when it was introduced early on in the proceedings. By Monday, its backers were calling it "the consensus amendment," indicating confidence that the measure would satisfy the seemingly irreconcilable needs of different factions in the Legislature.
"This has been a very difficult process for those of us in leadership and those of us here at the constitutional convention," said Sen. Brian P. Lees, a Republican from western Massachusetts who was among the amendment's sponsors. He said the process was so cumbersome and confusing that "sometimes, I have felt a little like a civics teacher."
Some lawmakers opposed permitting any change to a constitution written more than 200 years ago by John Adams, who went on to become president of the U.S. Others insisted that the amendment did not go far enough in defending traditional marriage.
Again and again Monday, lawmakers described the avalanche of correspondence they had received from voters on both sides of the issue. Several legislators said town meetings had been convened in their districts so that voters could air their thoughts on same-sex marriage. One senator said supporters and opponents had stationed themselves outside his home.
Lees, looking haggard, told his colleagues as they gathered for Monday's final vote: "I believe that the vast majority of people in this commonwealth believe — as many of us do in this chamber — that they do not want to discriminate. They do not want to take away any benefits, but they do want to say that marriage is between a man and a woman."
Rep. Elizabeth A. Malia, a Democrat from Boston who is the only openly gay state representative, said the amendment process proved that government was not just "about strategy and bureaucracy and uncaring people who are not involved in the process."
Moments before the final vote, Malia also warned her colleagues that the same-sex marriage debate in Massachusetts would not end with a constitutional amendment. If you choose to tell us today that we are not equal," she said, "I don't go away — we all don't go away."
In the Capitol's Great Hall — a 50-yard-long area hung with flags from around the commonwealth — the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie was among nearly 1,000 same-sex marriage supporters who sat on the floor to watch the proceedings on giant-screen TVs.
Crawford Harvie, a 46-year-old Unitarian Universalist minister, acknowledged after the final vote that "it would be easy to be discouraged," but said she preferred to take "the long view" of same-sex marriage.
"In a way, this has been a great blessing," she said. "As soon as this erupted in Massachusetts, San Francisco went in favor of gay marriage, and then Oregon. This has gone too far for us to give up."