Notes from the Hill The March 29 vote: A short debriefing

The March 29 action of the Legislature was heartrending. Legislators approved a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman, but added a civil union mandate that would guarantee same-sex couples everything that spouses get but not a marriage license.

What happened to the idea of splitting the question into two amendments, one dealing with marriage, the other with civil unions? In a critical vote March 29, 111 legislators voted in such a way as to preclude any attempt to split, when a difference of 12 votes would have altered the outcome and opened up the possibility for a split.

(For those interested in the math, that particular vote required a majority of those 197 legislators then present, which was 99).

Of those legislators in the majority, the following 21, based on various factors, were key potential swing votes who refused appeals to vote in such a way as to allow for a subsequent vote on splitting: Senators Hart, Pacheco and Tarr, and Representatives Atsalis, Binienda, Buoniconti, Callahan,, Canavan, Candaras, Casey, Coughlin, DeLeo, Finneran, Gobi, Howland, LeDuc, Mariano, Naughton, Verga, Wagner and Walrath.

On the final vote of the day to approve the dual amendment, 105 legislators voted yes, while 92 legislators voted no. This was the most gut-wrenching vote for legislators who opposed all along the move to tie a same-sex civil union mandate to a marriage definition. If the no votes would have achieved a majority, then the joint session would have failed to produce any amendment and would have given same-sex marriage supporters a total victory.

Gerry D’Avolio, the executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, said that when he saw at the end of the debate the bank of media cameras and microphones being set up outside the chambers for same-sex marriage supporters, he envisioned them coming out with huge smiles on their faces and telling the press that the Goodridge decision on gay marriage was totally vindicated and the Catholic Church, among other strong opponents, totally vanquished. Inside the chambers, legislators advocating for same-sex marriage, anticipating that total victory, got up one after another to lecture their colleagues about mean-spiritedness and bigotry.

In the end, our strong allies were counted among both sides of the final vote. Some could not stomach supporting the so-called compromise amendment that forces an impossible choice on the general public. Others could not stomach the thought of the other side declaring total victory, and opted to vote yes on a terrible amendment that nonetheless would nullify the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Total victory was denied the other side, but that is all that can be said that is positive about the outcome from our perspective, which is not much.

The battle now moves to the executive branch, which, at the time of this writing, is pitting Gov. Mitt Romney against Attorney General Tom Reilly. Postcard campaigns to support the governor’s bid to ask for a delay in implementing the Goodridge ruling, and to urge the attorney general to represent the governor and the people in their bid to appeal to the court, are positive and should be pursued.

More will be written in the future about the heroic efforts of so many people, inside the Legislature and in the grassroots, and what needs to be done next. For now we take the time to thank everyone for your valiant efforts. Catholics especially should be proud. Our active involvement in self-government should not, and will not, be a one-time happening. We are engaged and will not go away. Too much remains at stake.

"Notes from the Hill" is provided by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), the public policy voice for the four Catholic dioceses of Massachusetts. "Notes from the Hill" is not an official statement of the bishops of Massachusetts or MCC.