BOSTON - Was it a gay rights victory? Or just a temporary delay of the inevitable?
In the aftermath of this week's marathon constitutional convention, it was unclear whether Massachusetts lawmakers would be able to forge a majority in the next few weeks in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The debate is set to resume next month.
Weddings appeared likely to continue through the holiday weekend despite efforts by the Campaign for California Families and the Alliance Defense Fund to obtain a temporary restraining order that would prevent the city from granting more licenses. A Superior Court hearing was scheduled yesterday.
Around the country, gays and lesbians emboldened by San Francisco's move and by the constitutional debate over gay marriage in Massachusetts went to courthouses Thursday and yesterday demanding their own marriage licenses - and getting summarily rejected, since every state in the nation bans gay marriage.
In Massachusetts, the impassioned debate and behind-the-scenes negotiations ended in stalemate as constantly shifting alliances within the polarized 199-member Legislature made it impossible to win a simple majority in favor of an amendment.
Whether the Legislature will reach consensus when it reconvenes March 11 will depend upon what one senator called "the mush in the middle": the lawmakers who are neither squarely for or against a measure that would strip gay couples of the marriage rights granted by the state's highest court.
Over two days, legislators debated 19 hours and rejected three proposed amendments. The amendments' sponsors fell just a few votes shy each time of winning a simple majority.
Lawmakers could not agree on whether to combine a ban on gay marriage with a promise of Vermont-style civil unions for gays, or whether to write the amendment in such a way that it merely held out the possibility of enacting civil unions at some point in the future.
"When it comes to the fundamentals of human rights and beliefs, everything changes," said state Sen. Mark C. Montigny, a Massachusetts Democrat who opposes a constitutional ban.
Opponents of gay marriage remain confident that after the month-long adjournment, lawmakers will agree on a compromise measure that bans gay marriage but offers same-sex couples at least some hope of achieving something like civil unions.
"There is more than a majority who are ready to approve an amendment to the state constitution that protects marriage," said Rep. Philip Travis, a Democrat. "There is a not a majority yet who has agreed on how to word civil unions in Massachusetts. I lost the first battle, but the war is still on."
Gay rights activists are pressing for nothing short of marriage.
For the politicians, one major complicating factor is this: All 200 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs in November.
Scrutiny has been focused on the Massachusetts Legislature since November, when the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled that gays are entitled to marry. That set off a frenzy of activity to try to undo the court ruling by rewriting the state constitution.
But to succeed, the Legislature must pass an amendment with at least 101 votes in two consecutive legislative sessions - this year and in 2005-2006 - before it can be submitted to the voters for ratification in November 2006.
By the time any amendment is ratified, gay marriages will have been legal in Massachusetts for more than two years. Under the court's order, marriages licenses are to be issued to same-sex couples beginning in mid-May.