Thursday, December 28, 2006

Court won't force Massachusetts gay marriage vote

Court won't force Massachusetts gay marriage vote
By Jason Szep

BOSTON (Reuters) - In a setback to gay marriage opponents, Massachusetts' highest court said on Wednesday it would not require lawmakers to vote on a proposal that could ban gay marriage in the only U.S. state where it is legal.

Responding to a lawsuit spearheaded by Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the state's Supreme Judicial Court said it could not force another branch of government to act after lawmakers recessed last month without deciding to put the gay marriage issue on a 2008 statewide ballot.

"I certainly hope we do move on," said Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which successfully sued in 2003 for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. "The court cannot force a vote."

Romney, who has taken increasingly conservative stands on social issues such as gay marriage ahead of an expected bid for the Republican nomination in the 2008 presidential race, charged that legislators had subverted the state constitution on November 9 when they took no action on the proposal.

More than 170,000 people signed a petition that asked lawmakers to put the culturally divisive issue before voters in 2008. The initiative seeks to reverse a 2003 decision by the same court that legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts.

Lawmakers voted 109 to 87 to recess before deciding whether to put the amendment on the 2008 ballot, a step that appeared to kill the proposal.

By adjourning the constitutional convention until January 2, the last day of the legislative session, the Democratic-controlled legislature virtually guaranteed the proposed amendment will not be taken up, prompting protests by gay marriage opponents and celebrations by supporters.


Although Romney has consistently opposed gay marriage, the one-term governor has been criticized for shifting his position on gay rights. During a failed 1994 run for U.S. Senate, he promised a gay Republicans group he would be a stronger advocate for gays than Democratic rival Sen. Edward Kennedy.

But gay marriage foes including Romney found some solace in the language of the ruling, which said lawmakers had a constitutional obligation to vote on the proposal, even if the court could not force them to do so.

"I applaud the court's unanimous decision that the Legislature has a constitutional duty to vote on the merits of the marriage amendment," Romney said in a statement.

Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a conservative Christian organization, said the ruling sends a strong message to lawmakers. "These lawmakers and leaders have a moral obligation to see that the convention on January 2 follows the constitution."

If 25 percent of Massachusetts' 200-member legislature approves the measure on January 2, it will go to a second legislative vote in 2007. If it clears that hurdle, it will be added to a 2008 ballot for a popular vote.

"Beyond resorting to aspirational language that relies on the presumptive good faith of elected representatives, there is no presently articulated judicial remedy for the Legislature's indifference to, or defiance of, its constitutional duties," the court wrote in its decision.

In 2003, the 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.

Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut recognize same-sex civil unions. California, Maine, the District of Columbia and Hawaii each offer gay couples some legal rights as partners.