Notes from the Hill

The marriage debate is heating up again in the Commonwealth. First, a new constitutional convention, or con con, should open this coming week, requiring grassroots action in favor of the marriage amendment. Second, proposals to change the initiative petition process, backed by lobbyists for same-sex marriage, suffered a surprising defeat in committee last week.

A shenanigan watch in effect for May 9 con con

The state constitution requires the Massachusetts Legislature to meet in constitutional convention by May 9. The first item on the agenda is H. 4617, a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. The amendment needs one more vote of at least 50 legislators to place it on the statewide ballot in November of 2008. Grassroots action is needed this week.

While promising to bring the marriage amendment to a vote this term, the new Senate President Therese Murray has announced that final action will be delayed until after the state budget process is completed, which usually occurs in July. She aims to call the con con on May 9 only for the purpose of adjourning to a later date.

Nonetheless, given the adamant desire of some opponents to kill the amendment by any means, which could include surprise tactics, a shenanigan watch is in effect for the May 9 convention.

VoteOnMarriage.org, the organization spearheading the drive to put the amendment on the ballot, is calling for citizens to contact their legislators in support of the amendment and to come to the Statehouse on May 9 to monitor the process.

In turn, the Catholic bishops in Massachusetts have urged pastors to include a blurb in this week’s bulletins to alert parishioners about the upcoming con con. The bishops also are sending to legislators a joint statement urging a vote.

VoteOnMarriage.org is organizing buses and carpools from different parts of the state for people wanting to get to the Statehouse in Boston on May 9. For more information about travel plans in your area, call the Massachusetts Catholic Conference at 617-367-6060.

Contact your legislators by phone or by e-mail and urge them to bring the amendment to a vote as soon as possible, and to support the people’s right to vote at the ballot. The general number to the Statehouse is 617-722-2000. A list of legislators’ phone and e-mail addresses can be found online at www.macathconf.org.

Judiciary Committee rejects effort to shut down initiative process

In a surprising move, the legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary recommended last week that several proposals to alter the ballot process, backed by such powerful groups as the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Knowthyneighbor.org and Gays and Lesbians Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), should not pass.

The proposals sought to prevent initiative petitions concerning the abridgement of “civil rights” or “equal protection” from being approved for signature gathering. The supporters had applied a full-court press at a hearing last month before a committee regarded as generally favorable to their interests. They wanted to hammer home that civil rights should not be put to a vote, but that line of argument may have caused the unexpected defeat.

None of the proposals defined “civil rights” or “equal protection.” Since all laws are civil in nature, and all new laws change the level of legal protection, the proposals, if enacted, would have required the attorney general to reject every initiative petition presented, since all such petitions necessarily deal with the civil law and levels of legal protection in some fashion. In other words, the proposals would have eliminated entirely the people’s constitutional right to initiate new laws for the ballot.

This episode shines new light on the civil rights argument heard so often in the same-sex marriage context. Those testifying in favor of the proposals before the Judiciary Committee could not explain exactly what was or was not a “civil right” that should be “protected” from ballot consideration.

The people have voted in the past on all kinds of civil rights, broadly and reasonably understood as any right guaranteed by civil law. That’s what lawmaking is all about. So it’s not true that “civil rights are not to be put to a vote” since every time we vote on a ballot question, we affect someone’s rights under the civil law.

Further, one person’s civil right is another person’s civil limit. In the case of same-sex marriage, whatever right that adults think they may have to marry another adult, that claim directly affects the rights of children. What about a child’s right to grow up under the care of his or her married mother and father? A profound regard for the rights of children is what ultimately persuaded the United Nations to reject same-sex marriage as a human right in 2002.

In the end, the question is not whether any rights are involved but rather whose interests are more important to protect--the desires of adults or the needs of children?

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