After two deadlocked constitutional conventions, on March 29 the Massachusetts legislature finally agreed on an amendment that would reverse Goodridge v. Department of Health by defining marriage as a union between a man and woman. Nevertheless, it is premature to consider this a defeat for gay marriage.
Marital traditionalists still have many hurdles to clear in their effort to prevent the redefinition of matrimony in the Bay State, not the least of which is the text of their defense-of-marriage amendment itself. Even as it affirms traditional marriage, the compromise version adopted by the legislature creates civil unions. Thus, same-sex couples would be eligible for all the benefits of marriage except for the marriage license itself.
Faced with a lack of consensus among anti-Goodridge legislators on this question, legislative leaders–including the powerful socially conservative house speaker Thomas Finneran–came out in favor of the civil-unions provision as a way of breaking the impasse over the amendment. But many gay-marriage opponents were unhappy about it and predicted that the result would confuse the voters.
“We are giving the people a false choice,” Republican Rep. Vinny M. deMacedo told the Associated Press. “We’re saying, ‘No problem, you can vote to define marriage as between a man and a woman, but the only way you can do it is if you create civil unions that are entirely the same as marriage.’” Democratic Rep. John Rogers asserted, “This language as drafted is perilous.” Ron Crews of the Massachusetts Family Institute described the amendment as “designed to fail.”
Crews’s organization unsuccessfully lobbied to “bifurcate” the initiative, essentially breaking it into distinct ballot questions that would have allowed voters to decide the issues of gay marriage and civil unions separately. The MFI decided after its defeat to support the amendment anyway and debate civil-union eligibility requirements later, but whether this is adequate to rally like-minded voters remains to be seen. The legislature must vote up or down on the amendment again in the next session before it can be placed on the ballot, but it cannot change the wording.
Gay-marriage opponents also face time constraints. Procedurally, it is impossible to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot for the voters’ final approval before 2006. But under the Goodridge ruling, marriage licenses will start being issued to same-sex couples on May 17. This raises the possibility that voters will not get to weigh in on the issue until after same-sex marriage has been legal for two and a half years.
Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, has asked the commonwealth’s attorney general, Thomas Reilly, to seek a stay of the ruling until the people get a chance to vote. Reilly, a Democrat, has refused, saying that he doesn’t like Goodridge either but that the decision is “the law of the land.” While there is a political element to the dispute–Reilly is a potential gubernatorial challenger to Romney in 2006–it is unlikely that the Supreme Judicial Court would grant a stay even if the attorney general requested one.
Polls have shown voters to be more divided on same-sex marriage in the Bay State than the nation at large. Assuming pro-amendment forces can keep their coalition together to prevail once more in the next legislature, it is looking increasingly likely that they will have to persuade the Massachusetts electorate to vote against gay nuptials while they are already in place.
They might improve their chances of doing so if fewer of them worked to reinforce their opponents’ framing of the debate as a contest between one side’s religious beliefs and the other’s civil rights. Yet in public demonstrations during the constitutional convention, anti-gay-marriage protesters met their pro-gay-marriage counterparts’ chants of “equal rights” by shouting “Jesus Christ.”
Devout Christians, Jews, and Muslims are among the most prominent, principled, and indispensable opponents of same-sex marriage. The family structure and values at stake have deep roots in Judeo-Christian morality. But the case for traditional marriage must be made based on reason as well as faith. Making arguments accessible to Americans with differing religious commitments is important not only in forming a democratic majority, but also in sustaining the traditionalists’ understanding of marriage as a shared social norm.
Massachusetts has acquired a reputation for being a liberal bulwark, in some cases almost alone against the national tide. How gay marriage fares at the ballot box there, with so many obstacles before opponents, may be a harbinger of things to come throughout the country. As the home of John Kerry, this quintessential blue state isn’t likely to be competitive in this fall’s presidential election. But in the marriage debate, it remains a major battleground.
On this issue at least, it may be that as Massachusetts goes, so goes the nation.
–W. James Antle III is a Boston-based freelance writer.