Civil unions bill proposed to SJC

While representatives from conservative organizations from within the state and throughout the nation gathered to strategize about the future of marriage in the Bay State this week, some lawmakers were working to strike a compromise on the issue of same-sex marriage.

On Dec. 11, the State Senate adopted an order asking the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) whether civil unions could satisfy the court’s requirement that same-sex couples be allowed to marry. The order directed Senate President Robert Travaglini, D-East Boston, to seek the SJC’s opinion on whether or not civil unions would satisfy the court’s ruling that a ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. On Dec. 15 the court solicited briefs on the matter from “interested persons.” The deadline for filing such briefs is Jan. 12.

This comes after a proposed civil unions bill, sponsored by State Senators Frederick Berry, D-Peabody, and Joan Menard, D-Somerset, received initial approval by legislators.

The proposal, more sweeping than the one passed in Vermont in 1999, would create legal civil unions — similar to marriage but without the official title of marriage. If passed, all the same benefits and rights afforded to married couples would be conferred upon same-sex couples in civil unions.

The senate civil unions bill is not the only one circulating on Beacon Hill. State Representative Charles Murphy, D-Burlington, has also indicated he plans to file civil union legislation, although according to Statehouse sources, he is awaiting the SJC’s ruling before submitting his proposal.

Despite significant support from state lawmakers, civil unions are being met with opposition from both sides of the gay marriage debate.

Gay marriage supporters argue that civil unions would create a legal, but unequal union.

Speaking to the MetroWest Daily News, Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, argued, “If it was just semantics, we wouldn’t be fighting this so hard. We feel very strongly that the SJC’s decision was clear: There is no substitute for a civil marriage license.”

Meanwhile, those in favor of traditional marriage argue that the civil unions bill is a thinly veiled gay marriage proposal.

Daniel Avila, associate director for policy and research for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, believes this proposal blurs the line between marriage and civil unions. He cited one section of the initiative, which clearly states “the term marriage as it is used throughout the law shall be construed as marriage and civil unions.”

"This is not a civil unions bill; it's a marriage bill," said Avila.

Ronald Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, an outspoken proponent of traditional marriage, echoed the sentiment expressed by the MCC.

Calling the proposed civil unions bill “marriage-lite,” Crews went on to voice his “disappointment” over the Senate’s unilateral decision to approach the SJC. He called on the legislature to “rise up and be a separate, equal branch of the government.”

"This is a legislative matter, and we would like to see it taken care of by the legislators," he said.

Crews hopes to gather support from other Massachusetts citizens opposed to legalizing gay marriage. To that end, the Massachusetts Family Institute convened a two-day strategy session last week for conservative organizations to brainstorm and formulate their response to the gay marriage question. In attendance were representatives from the MCC, the Massachusetts-based Center for Marriage Law, the Washington-based Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, a national organization dedicated to conservative issues.

"We were very excited to have a good coalition forming," stated Crews, whose group organized the meeting. "There has been very good cooperation among evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics and others who are all in favor of marriage."

Crews hailed the meetings as “productive.” Currently there are several rallies in the works, as well as a capital campaign in order to publicize opposition to gay marriage.

"In the three weeks since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reinterpreted the state constitution to order up 'marriage' for homosexuals, there's been a lot of discussion, public and private," wrote Crews in an opinion piece distributed to several local news organizations and appearing in this week's Pilot. "Polls show that opposition to same-sex 'marriage' -- despite massive media efforts to the contrary -- has actually risen since that ruling was made."

In addition, Crews stressed the need for citizens to contact their legislators and voice their opposition to gay marriage.

"Speak up. Marriage belongs to us, the people -- not the court," he wrote.

"We want everyone to know that there is a large body of people who are opposed to the court's decision," Crews told The Pilot.

Avila, who attended the two-day meeting on behalf of the MCC, felt it was “encouraging to see the reflection that went on” during the meetings, but also conceded it was “sobering because there is quite a big job ahead of us.”

"The clear landmark is the vote on Feb. 11," he added. On that day the House and Senate will convene in a constitutional convention in order to vote on a proposed amendment to the state's constitution that will define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

If the amendment is passed, the state legislation will have to vote next year once again in order to put the amendment on the ballot. The earliest the amendment could be voted on is 2006.

According to Crews, the Massachusetts Family Institute is currently “hoping to delay implementation of gay marriage until it can be voted on by the people.”

"In order for us to have any chance of restoring the definition of marriage as the union between one man and one woman, we must win the vote of Feb. 11," stressed Avila.