BOSTON - The Legislature, in a vote as swift as it was historic, reaffirmed the state's first-in-the-nation same-sex marriage ruling yesterday, unequivocally protecting the rights of gays and lesbians to wed in Massachusetts until at least 2012.
But when the hour arrived, there was neither debate nor delay. In a packed chamber, first senators and then House members cast their votes to reject a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage in Massachusetts as only a union between a man and a woman.
In the end, the proposed ban garnered only 45 votes, five short of what it needed to qualify for the 2008 statewide ballot and 17 fewer than it won during its first trip through the Legislature less than six months ago.
"In Massachusetts today, the freedom to marry is secure," Governor Deval Patrick told a cheering crowd of gay-marriage advocates after the results of the Constitutional Convention were announced. "Today's vote is not just a vote for marriage equality. It was a vote for equality itself."
Opponents of same-sex marriage, who had been optimistic they could hold their votes, vowed to continue the fight, possibly through a new petition drive. That process would require, once again, the collection of hundreds of thousands of signatures and the approval of at least 50 lawmakers in two consecutive legislative sessions. Secretary of State William F. Galvin said last night that the question could not be placed before voters until at least 2012.
"We're not going away," said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which led the voter signature drive to get the proposed constitutional ban before the Legislature. "But it's certainly a setback."
The defeat of the proposed amendment ends, at least for now, a series of fierce and often emotional debates at the State House that began when the Supreme Judicial Court issued a 4-to-3 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Lawmakers opposed to gay marriage immediately attempted to pass an amendment overturning the ruling, and when that failed, citizens launched their own petition, which garnered more than 100,000 signatures. Over the past three years, lawmakers wrestled with the issue during a series of heated and tumultuous constitutional conventions, which saw the support for a gay marriage ban steadily slip.
But yesterday, there were no fiery speeches. Lawmakers proceeded to a vote, just seconds after Senate President Therese Murray gaveled the convention to order. When the final tally was displayed, loud cheers erupted in the House chamber, throughout the State House, and on the streets beyond. Gay-marriage supporters wiped away tears and embraced, while opponents prayed in the hallways and threatened to work to unseat legislators who had switched their votes.
Less than six months ago, the amendment's chances appeared strong, after it won the support of 62 lawmakers at a Constitutional Convention in January.
Since that initial vote, several opponents of gay marriage have left the Legislature, and there has been a dramatic shift in leadership. Governor Mitt Romney and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, who both supported the amendment, were replaced by Patrick and Murray, both strong supporters of same-sex marriage, who joined House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi in trying to pry away votes from the ban.
DiMasi, facing a major test of his leadership skills, was given particular credit by gay-rights leaders yesterday for his work in turning around votes in the House.
A plea from the Archdiocese of Boston and last-minute calls to lawmakers by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley failed to save the amendment.
Mineau, without offering details, repeated assertions that much of the lobbying by legislative leaders and the governor included horse-trading and job offers and vowed to investigate.
"There had to be some very powerful dynamics that occurred, and we are looking to see what offers were made," he said.
The political leaders strongly denied the allegations, saying that they made their case based on the merits of the issue and their conviction that if the issue were on the ballot in 2008, Massachusetts would become a national battleground over gay rights, creating chaos locally and draining important resources from Democrats' national efforts, including winning the White House and retaining control of Congress.
"We gave them the best possible arguments," Patrick told reporters, before heading outside to mingle with gay-rights supporters. "Let me be clear. We didn't offer jobs."
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But Patrick acknowledged he had made political promises to help legislators in their reelection campaigns.
Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and its chief legislative lobbyist, said the amendment's defeat is a "monumental and historic moment" that not only marks a crushing setback to gay-marriage opponents in Massachusetts but also to conservative forces across the nation.
"This was the battleground; our opponents considered this to be ground zero," said Isaacson, referring to Massachusetts' status as the first and only state in the nation to sanction gay marriage.
Patrick Guerriero, a former Republican legislator from Melrose who is now executive director of Gill Action, a national political organization that promotes gay rights, said the Legislature's vote has broad national implications.
"Every single state in America was looking at Massachusetts today for a message, and the message is clear, that this state's experience in marriage equality has endured and thrived," Guerriero said.
Resignations and turnover from last year's elections drained at least five votes from the pro-amendment side, while lobbying by leaders and gay rights activists further eroded support for the gay marriage ban.
In the end, nine lawmakers, seven Democrats and two Republicans, changed their votes yesterday, while at least two legislative newcomers who had been considered supporters of the amendment decided to vote the other way.
Senator Michael Morrissey, a Democrat from Quincy, said he did not respond to any pressure in coming to his decision.
"There isn't one person in the entire room who knew how I was going to vote," he said. "I didn't talk to the governor. I didn't talk to the Senate president. I wasn't succumbing to political pressure.
"In the end it came down to the fact that we have to do what we think is the right thing and what we feel comfortable with. Protecting the rights of the minority is one of the things we have to do."
DiMasi said that the nose counting went down to the wire and that he wasn't sure he had enough House members lined up until just minutes before the House and Senate convened in a joint session at 1 p.m.
A few surprises, including news that Republicans Richard Ross and Paul Loscocco were dropping their support for the proposal, assured him that a victory was at hand.
Murray, too, felt the tension as she prepared to open the convention.
"I can tell you right now that we did not know at 5 minutes to 1, when I went into the chamber, what the vote would be," she said later.
"But I was committed to taking the vote, and I figured we'd know the vote when we took it. We had no comfort level."
To reassure legislators who fear that the state's legalization of same-sex marriages could force churches to do the same, Murray said she would push for passage of a bill sponsored by Loscocco that would make it clear that religious institutions can refuse to recognize gay marriages.
© Copyright 2007 The Boston Globe