Massachusetts mulls same-sex marriage ban
Lawmakers take up constitutional amendment as activists gather
Spectators gather inside the Massachusetts Statehouse before the start of a constitutional convention on the question of same-sex marriage.
BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Drawing protesters on both sides of the issue, Massachusetts lawmakers convened Wednesday for an extraordinary constitutional convention to consider a ban on same-sex marriage.
The move to debate such an amendment to the state constitution comes one week after the state's highest court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to marriage -- not simply civil unions.
With that ruling, Massachusetts stands to become the first state in the country to allow gays and lesbians to marry.
An estimated 3,700 people lined the lobby, stairwells and just about anywhere there was room in the 200-year-old Statehouse. Hundreds more gathered outside chanting slogans and waving signs.
Chants of "Let the people vote" could be heard from people on both sides of the issue.
"Civil unions don't equal civil rights," read one sign. Another said, "Massachusetts for equality."
Just before the convention began, a fight broke out in the Statehouse when the two opposing forces yelled and screamed at each other. Police broke up the scuffle without further incident.
At one point, those opposing gay marriages unfurled a giant American flag inside the Statehouse. Gay rights advocates held up a large "rainbow" flag, which has come to symbolize gay pride.
Protesters were not separated by sides. Gay rights advocates often stood next to their foes, with an occasional scowl exchanged.
Lawmakers made their way through the crowd around 1:45 p.m. amid loud shouts and chants. About 15 minutes later, the debate began and lasted more than six hours.
Lawmakers narrowly rejected a compromise that sought to legalize civil unions but ban same-sex marriages.
The key issue of whether to ban same-sex marriages did not make it to vote Wednesday. The convention is to reconvene at noon Thursday.
State Rep. Philip Travis, a Democratic sponsor of the amendment to bring the issue to a vote of the people, said the union of one man and one woman "will be protected in Massachusetts."
He said he hoped Massachusetts would not be "the first state in the union to endorse gay marriage by legislation."
State Sen. Harriet Chandler told lawmakers, "I urge my colleagues to stand with me against discrimination today and to oppose this attempt to amend our constitution."
State Senate Majority Leader Brian Lees acknowledged the chants in the lobby for the people to vote on the issue.
"All we ask, I believe, of the people in the hall, the people who have written letters saying they would like the chance to vote, we are doing that," Lees said.
Any amendment would have to be ratified by both houses of the Legislature in two successive legislative sessions. Then the voters would have to approve it.
A woman who supports same-sex marriage stands Wednesday outside the Massachusetts Statehouse.
The earliest voters could consider a constitutional amendment would be November 2006. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ordered the Legislature to allow gays to marry by this May.
Last week's ruling was in response to a question from the state Senate on whether civil unions for gay couples would be sufficient to meet the court's 4-3 November decision that gays and lesbians cannot be forbidden from joining in civil marriages under the Massachusetts Constitution.
Civil unions grant couples most of the rights of state civil marriages but provide none of the federal benefits of marriage such as Social Security.
"The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal," the state's highest court said in its ruling.
President Bush called the court's ruling "deeply troubling."
In his State of the Union address last month, Bush said he was prepared to support a constitutional amendment to prevent "activist judges" from "redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives."
The White House stopped short Wednesday of saying Bush had decided to support such an amendment but said he would do so if needed.
Press secretary Scott McClellan said the president is "committed to doing what is legally necessary. ... If necessary, he will support a constitutional amendment."
Social conservatives have called on the White House to take an unequivocal stand against same-sex unions, arguing they pose a threat to fundamental Judeo-Christian values.
McClellan said Bush recently told GOP members of Congress that a proposed amendment written by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colorado, was consistent with his views on the issue.
The proposed amendment would forbid states from allowing gay marriages but permit them to pass laws allowing civil unions and same-sex legal partnership arrangements, as are now allowed in California and Vermont.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, one of the nation's most prominent gay lawmakers, told CNN that gays are "not diluting the marriage between a man and a woman.
"The marriage between two heterosexuals who love each other, the overwhelming form of marriage, will be exactly unchanged," he said. "This does not alter marriage one iota for the overwhelming majority of people."
Thirty-eight states have passed laws forbidding the recognition of gay marriages.
The Massachusetts decision and similar court rulings in Canada also have entered the debate among the Democratic presidential candidates.
Front-runner Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has said he does not support gay marriage but does back civil unions. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean signed first state law on same-sex civil unions.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the question of same-sex marriage should be one for voters -- not the courts -- to decide.
CNN's Rose Arce contributed to this report.