By Kevin McNicholas
Tuesday, January 2, 2007; 6:50 PM
BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts lawmakers approved a measure on Tuesday that could give voters a chance next year to ban gay marriage in the only U.S. state where it is legal and overturn a historic ruling by the state's highest court.
"We see this as a victory," said Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a conservative Christian organization.
With hundreds of protesters on both sides of the emotionally charged issue chanting slogans outside the gold-domed Statehouse, 61 lawmakers voted to advance the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage -- more than enough needed under state law for such initiatives.
The 200-member legislature, which has faced a grueling battle over the issue for three years, immediately moved to reconsider its vote, a step gay-marriage supporters had hoped would defeat it. But the measure passed a second vote by the same 61-132 margin.
If it clears another legislative test expected by early next year, Massachusetts residents will vote on it in 2008.
"If it goes to the ballot, it would be a disaster for this state," said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "The state will endure one of the nastiest and most divisive debates you've ever seen with the radical right money pouring in and an anti-gay campaign of the likes people could not possibly imagine."
Although a majority in the Democratic-controlled state legislature voted against it, the measure needed only 50 votes to pass. It also was backed by 170,000 Massachusetts voters who signed a petition along with social conservatives including Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, a probable White House contender.
Gay marriage advocates, including Democratic Gov.-elect Deval Patrick, had lobbied to kill the proposed amendment by pressing the state constitutional convention to recess without voting on the proposal.
That is what happened on November 9 when lawmakers threw their support behind gay-marriage advocates by adjourning the constitutional convention without moving on the issue, angering Romney, who then asked the state's highest court to intervene.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled last week that it could not force lawmakers to vote but urged them to do so anyway, saying they had a constitutional duty to vote. That statement appeared to sway legislative leaders.
The proposed amendment, which would define marriage as between a man and a woman, now goes to a second legislative vote expected by early 2008. If it clears that hurdle, it will be added to a ballot next year for a popular vote.
"I believe a vote to advance this question to the 2008 ballot is irresponsible and wrong," Patrick, who will be sworn in this week, said in a statement before the vote. "It would do nothing more than condemn us all to more years of debate and expense on a matter that is legally and practically settled."
In 2003, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional, leading to America's first same-sex marriages the following year. More than 8,000 gay and lesbian couples have since married.
The debate in Massachusetts comes about two weeks after New Jersey became the third U.S. state to provide equal rights for same-sex couples in committed relationships known as civil unions.
Marriage between same-sex couples is legal in Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and South Africa.