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Massachusetts high court says it cannot force lawmakers to vote on gay marriage ban

Massachusetts high court says it cannot force lawmakers to vote on gay marriage ban

In a rebuke of the Legislature, the state's highest court Wednesday ruled lawmakers have defied the constitution by refusing to vote on a proposed amendment that would ban gay marriage. But the court also said it has no authority to force them to act.
Gov. Mitt Romney and other supporters of the amendment, angered that lawmakers failed during a joint session in November to take a vote necessary to move it toward the ballot, sued and asked the Supreme Judicial Court to clarify lawmakers' duties under the state's constitution.
In its ruling, the court said the Legislature's obligation to vote was "beyond serious debate," but said the most it could do was remind lawmakers of that duty.
Lawmakers have a final chance to vote on the amendment when lawmakers meet in joint session on Jan. 2, the last day of the current Legislative session. The proposed amendment, which would define marriage as only between a man and a woman, would keep existing same-sex marriages intact but ban all future gay marriages.
Massachusetts is the only U.S. state to allow gay marriage.
In November, gay marriages advocates led by House Speaker Sal DiMasi, voted 109-87 to recess without a vote, well above the simple majority needed to recess. DiMasi did not return a call for comment.
Senator President Robert Travaglini, who runs the constitutional convention, could also bring the question to a vote by refusing to recognize any lawmaker he knows will move for a recess. A spokeswoman for Travaglini said he would not be available for comment Wednesday.
If a vote on the amendment is taken, it needs the support of a quarter of the Legislature, or 50 lawmakers, in two consecutive legislative sessions to move to the ballot.
"As the court has made very clear, a procedural maneuver to avoid this responsibility would violate a legislators oath of office," Romney said in a statement. "The issue is now whether the Legislature will follow the law."
Rep. Michael E. Festa, who supports gay marriage, said he'll do whatever it takes to keep the question off the ballot.
"All of us believe strongly that because the proposition being put before us as a body is so offensive to the constitution, and our notion of what equal rights should be for all of our citizens, we are going to do everything appropriate and necessary to keep it off the ballot," said the Melrose Democrat.
Marc Solomon of MassEquality, a gay rights group, said the decision affirmed that lawmakers cannot be compelled to vote to advance an amendment they disagree with, and that it was time to move on.
"We urge the Legislature to end this debate once and for all and let committed couples and their families get on with their lives," he said.
Plaintiff C.J. Doyle of the Catholic Action League said he doubted lawmakers would act, despite the court's rebuke.
"There is no court decision that can infuse the Massachusetts General Court with integrity," he said. "Our legislators have demonstrated time and time again a contempt for the constitution and for their oath of office."
The supporters of the gay marriage ban amendment collected signatures from 170,000 people in an effort to get the question on the 2008 ballot.
In the last two decades, state lawmakers have routinely used procedural maneuvers to kill citizens-initiated ballot questions on issues ranging from abortion to education. A lawsuit is pending by supporters of a ballot question that would guarantee universal health care, a measure essentially killed when it was sent to a legislative committee.
Gay marriage opponents say the Legislature's record is evidence of lawmakers' arrogance, but gay marriage supporters say lawmakers are simply playing their historic role in determining how the constitution is amended.
In its 11-page ruling, the court said drafters of the provision that allows for citizen petitions "did not intend a simple majority of the joint session to have the power effectively to block progress of an initiative."
"Those members who now seek to avoid their lawful obligations, by a vote to recess without a roll call vote by yeas and nays on the merits of the initiative amendment (or by other procedural vote of similar consequence), ultimately will have to answer to the people who elected them," the court said.
Lee Swislow of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders said she hoped lawmakers who have supported gay marriage rights would continue to do so during the constitutional convention.
Asked if it was more important for lawmakers to defeat the amendment than follow the state constitution, she said, "I don't think I'll quite answer it in that way. I think that all I can do is continue to say that this is a terrible amendment."
The high court ruled in 2003 that the state constitution guaranteed gays the right to marry. Since the marriages began in 2004, about 8,000 same-sex couples have wed.
Gay marriage opponents argue the people, not the courts, should define something as important to society as marriage. Gay marriage supporters say the marriages have benefited the state and that the civil rights of a minority should not be put to a popular vote.
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Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report from Boston.


Updated : 2021-06-14 23:59 GMT+08:00