BOSTON (Reuters) - Gay marriage in Massachusetts withstood a challenge on Thursday when lawmakers beat back a four-year effort by social conservatives to ban same-sex unions in the only U.S. state where they are legal.
With 1,000 protesters from both sides of the debate rallying outside the gold-domed statehouse, the Democratic-controlled legislature voted 151-45 to block the amendment that would have allowed voters to decide whether to ban same-sex marriage in a 2008 ballot.
“We’re very disappointed,” said Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a conservative Christian organization that led a petition drive to reverse a historic 2003 state court ruling legalizing gay marriage.
Even if the change to the state’s constitution had passed, opinion polls show voters in the traditionally liberal state likely would have preserved the status quo in the 2008 ballot, said Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz.
“But I don’t think that the pro-gay marriage side wanted to take a chance on that,” he said. “That’s why the stakes were so high in the legislature.”
The vote in the 200-seat house, five short of the 50 needed to advance the amendment, was a victory for Gov. Deval Patrick, who won a November election by a landslide to become the state’s first Democratic governor in 16 years.
Patrick had lobbied hard to defeat the proposal that was championed by his Republican predecessor, Mitt Romney, ahead of Romney’s presidential campaign.
“People really struggled over this as a matter of principle,” Patrick told reporters.
In 2003, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional, paving the way for America’s first same-sex marriages the following year. More than 8,000 gay and lesbian couples have since married.
Some gay marriage supporters wore stickers saying “Preserve Equality” and hundreds held colorful hand-made flags and signs such as “Marriage is a Human Right”.
Social conservatives chanted “Let the people vote”.
“Everybody comes from a man and a woman. That’s the basic fundamental group or unit of society,” said same-sex marriage opponent George Howe, 52. “People get caught up in man-man or woman-woman relationships, they are missing the point.”
In a first round in January, the proposal won 62 votes — enough to advance it to Thursday’s second round of voting by state legislators.
It was unclear why some lawmakers who supported the amendment in January had switched positions.
Opponents of same-sex marriage said they wanted an investigation into whether ethics were violated in the lobbying to convince some lawmakers to switch votes.
“It isn’t just a fight between two views of morality,” said Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry. “It’s a fight between organizations, and the organizational depth on the pro-gay marriage side is a lot greater.”