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Battle intensifies over gay marriage in Massachusetts
Wed Nov 23, 2005 07:18 PM ET
By Jason Szep
BOSTON (Reuters) - Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment that would outlaw gay marriage in Massachusetts said on Wednesday they had more than double the number of signatures needed to put the issue to voters.
But gay rights lawyers threatened a legal challenge to stop the ballot initiative, underscoring deepening tension over the divisive issue a year after Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize gay marriage.
A loose coalition of conservative and Christian groups seeking to ban same-sex marriage had to gather at least 65,825 signatures before state lawmakers could decide whether to put the question to a public referendum in 2008.
On Wednesday, as a deadline passed to submit the signatures to town and city clerks who must check their authenticity, jubilant officials at the Massachusetts Family Institute and other conservatives announced they had found solid support.
"We have more than surpassed our goal of 120,000 signatures, and we expect there will be a significantly larger tally than that when the final numbers come up," the institute's president, Kristian Mineau, told Reuters.
Massachusetts' highest court ruled in 2003 that it was unconstitutional to ban gay marriage, paving the way for America's first same-sex marriages in May the following year.
Conservatives and some religious groups say the issue is so important that voters should decide it, not the state Supreme Court, a position backed by Massachusetts' Republican governor, Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon with White House ambitions.
Gay rights lawyers are girding for a legal showdown.
They say that under the state Constitution, a ballot initiative cannot reverse a judicial decision. They plan to sue the state's attorney general, who approved the ballot initiative on September 7.
"We're going to be wrangling over one little sentence in the Constitution," said Gary Buseck, legal director at the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which successfully argued the
2002 case that opened the door to gay marriage in the state.
As the battle intensifies, the country is looking on.
Texas this month became the 19th U.S. state to approve a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. But reflecting a mixed national mood, Maine voters this month rejected a conservative-backed proposal to repeal a gay-rights law.
An ABC/Washington Post poll in January found that 41 percent of American adults thought gay marriage and civil unions should be legal and 55 percent did not.
But that poll also showed a conflicting view among people in the prime marrying ages of between 18 to 29 -- 55 percent of that group supported gay marriage and 42 percent did not.
The U.S. Supreme Court has not taken a case on gay marriage, leaving states to decide the issue.
"Massachusetts is ground zero for the definition of marriage," said Mineau.
If the signatures on the petition are approved by December 7, his group and other conservatives would then need further approval by 25 percent of the 200-member state Legislature over two straight sittings -- one in 2006 and the other in 2007 -- before the issue could be put to voters in 2008.
The initiative, if passed, would not seek to annul about 6,500 marriage licenses already issued to same-sex couples.