Local marriage supporters consider implications of N.J. ruling

BOSTON -- As Massachusetts looks toward the Nov. 9 constitutional convention, key traditional marriage advocates here are looking at the implications of the New Jersey court decision that opens the door for same-sex marriage in that state.

On Oct. 25, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that the state constitution’s equal protection clause entitles same-sex couples to the same rights and benefits as heterosexual married couples.

However, the court also said it was up to the state legislature to determine the structure through which those rights should be provided.

The court stated that the judicial recognition of fundamental rights “place[s] important social issues beyond public debate,” thus judges “must be careful not to impose our personal value system on eight-and-a-half million people [in New Jersey], thus bypassing the democratic process as the primary means of effecting social change in this state.”

It also said the redefinition of marriage, “would render a profound change in the public consciousness of a social institution of ancient origin.”

Therefore, the court continued, such a change, “must come about through civil dialogue and reasoned discourse, and the considered judgment of the people in whom we place ultimate trust in our republican form of government.... We will not short-circuit the democratic process from running its course.”

According to Daniel Avila, associate director for policy and research for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, the court’s decision “bolsters the case for Massachusetts that the people should decide” on the definition of marriage in this state.

Avila said this is precisely what traditional marriage supporters here have been advocating.

“We strongly believe the people, not the judiciary, should decide,” he stressed. “The people have the right to vote on same-sex marriage.”

A key step in allowing the process to take place is ensuring that state legislators do not side step a vote on the proposed Protection of Marriage Amendment at the scheduled Nov. 9 constitutional convention.

The proposed amendment states that “when recognizing marriages entered into after the adoption of this amendment by the people, the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall define marriage only as the union of one man and one woman.”

Earlier this year, the amendment was set to be voted on during the July 12 constitutional convention. However, four hours after convening legislators voted to recess, delaying the vote until after the Nov. 7 elections.

At the time, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, D-Boston, released a statement asserting that all items that were to have been taken up at the July 12 convention would be addressed before the end of the year.

According to Avila, the senate president has “made it very clear that he doesn’t want the vote to be delayed again.”

Before the proposed amendment can come before voters, it must be approved by at least 25 percent of the Legislature meeting in joint constitutional convention in two consecutive sessions. If the measure is approved both this year and next, it could appear on the ballot in 2008.

The executive director of Catholic Citizenship, Larry Cirignano, is hopeful the vote will take place as scheduled, despite rumors that some lawmakers hope to scuttle the vote with a walkout to prevent a quorum. Catholic Citizenship is a non-partisan organization which promotes public policy education and grassroots involvement in the political process,

“We are asking everyone to call their legislators and find where they stand on this issue,” he said.

In addition, Cirignano is hoping many supporters of traditional marriage will show their support at the Statehouse that day.

“We are hopeful that a vote will take place,” he said.

“This is not the court’s prerogative,” he added. “The people have the right to vote on this.”

Cirignano noted that the New Jersey high court decision is in keeping with recent decisions in other states, notably California and New York.

“These courts have made it very clear that this is a legislative decision,” he said.

In addition, Cirignano believes that the country is seeing a surge in the number of states banning same-sex marriage. Eight states will likely define marriage as the union between one man and one woman during the upcoming elections.

These decisions “make a push for the Federal Marriage amendment,” Cirignano said.