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Notes from the Hill: New effort on marriage underway

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A recently formed ballot question committee, VoteOnMarriage.org, has launched a new campaign to pass a constitutional amendment in Massachusetts giving voters a clean vote on defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Supporters of this new amendment hope to defeat another amendment authored by Senate President Robert Travaglini that would impose a constitutional mandate to create same-sex civil unions equal to marriage.

The new amendment reads: “When recognizing marriages entered after the adoption of this amendment by the people, the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall define marriage as only the union of one man and one woman.”

The Roman Catholic Bishops of the four dioceses in Massachusetts back this new amendment to the state constitution. Supporters have to collect at least 66,000 signatures this fall to bring it before the state legislature next year. At least 51 out of the total of 200 state legislators have to approve it in two different constitutional conventions. If that is accomplished, then the amendment goes to the voters in 2008.

The legislature approved the Travaglini amendment once already last year, and is expected to take it up again later this year. Since it was introduced by legislators, and not through an initiative petition, it would need 101 legislators’ votes to be placed on the 2006 ballot.

The new amendment introduced by VoteOnMarriage.org would require state officials to issue future marriage licenses only to couples consisting of one man and one woman. It would prohibit judges or town clerks from redefining marriage again and prevent the legislature from creating same-sex marriage by statute.

The new amendment would do nothing beyond fixing the legal definition of future marriages. It would not affect any previously recognized marriage or alter any existing rights. Any marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples before the amendment is approved by the voters in 2008 would continue to be legal. The amendment would be prospective, not retroactive.

Nor would the new amendment prohibit the state from recognizing civil unions or domestic partnerships. The complex task of fashioning benefits and determining which persons should receive them would remain with the legislature.

Some questions for Catholics may arise. By not abolishing existing same-sex marriages or not banning same-sex civil unions, does the new amendment fail to go far enough, making support for this approach morally problematic?

This question requires a careful assessment of the political and legal realities. Legislators advised marriage defenders that any amendment affecting current same-sex marriages would be “dead on arrival” in the Statehouse.

Avoiding this political obstacle by crafting an amendment that leaves the existing relationships alone still does not recognize these relationships or endorse them. Their legal status was mandated by four runaway justices on our state supreme court, through no fault and despite the efforts of marriage’s defenders.

Besides, under the new amendment, efforts to defeat morally objectionable legislation dealing with civil unions, etc., could still be undertaken. The new amendment has nothing to say, either way, about any status outside of marriage.

We are allowed to hone in on the doable, even if that results in a “tolerance” for what realistically cannot be undone. Thus, we can and should support the new amendment.

If such tolerance is permissible, then why not support the Travaglini amendment? It would also define marriage as only the union between one man and one woman. While the Travaglini amendment expressly recognizes same-sex civil unions, could Catholics still vote for it at the ballot box by saying they only “tolerate” the objectionable language?

Here the analysis must take into account the actual function of the Travaglini amendment. Currently, same-sex civil unions are not recognized in Massachusetts. The Travaglini amendment would create this new legal status and then require it to be treated exactly the same as marriage. Its adoption would block any efforts to restrict civil unions in the legislature. Thus, a vote for this amendment at the ballot box would go beyond tolerance. It would cause an objectionable wrong —the new legal status of civil unions for same-sex couples — to come into being. The new amendment must be preferred over the Travaglini amendment.

Signature collection will take place between Sept. 21 and Nov. 23 this year. More information will be provided when necessary. The VoteOnMarriage.org Web site is functioning and already seeking volunteers willing to sign up. This will be a crucial effort needing the support of many. Please get involved and stay tuned!

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