BOSTON - Gay-rights activists, conservative leaders and news media from around the globe converged on the Massachusetts Statehouse yesterday as lawmakers prepared for a historic session in which they will take up a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
The issue of gay marriages has created a spectacle at the Capitol. Up to 4,000 spectators and 300 members of the news media are expected to attend the start of the constitutional convention today, and a furious lobbying effort was under way.
Christian conservatives hauled in more than 18,000 petitions signed by citizens from across the country urging lawmakers to pass the amendment.
Meanwhile, children of gay couples traveled to the Statehouse to plead with the Senate president "not to write discrimination into our constitution."
"I've never seen anything like this," said Charles Rasmussen, spokesman for House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a Democrat who supports the amendment. "And I'm told this building has never seen this kind of scrutiny from the national media that anyone can remember."
Camera crews from London, Japan and Spain are seeking credentials for the event, and authorities planned to beef up security to handle the crowds.
Massachusetts put itself at the center of the gay-marriage debate when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 in November that gays should be guaranteed the benefits of marriage. Lawmakers thought that Vermont-style civil unions might suffice, but the court issued an advisory opinion last week that left no doubt: Only full-fledged gay marriage would pass constitutional muster.
That cleared the way for the nation's first legally sanctioned same-sex weddings by May.
At the constitutional convention, the House and Senate will meet together to consider 10 proposed constitutional amendments. The gay-marriage issue is near the bottom of the agenda and might not get to a final vote for days.
Another proposed amendment could require the state's judges to be elected rather than appointed - an issue that has taken on added significance because of the court's polarizing stance on gay marriage.
If approved by the Legislature during this session, the gay-marriage amendment would have to again be ratified by lawmakers during the 2005-2006 session before it could wind up on the November 2006 ballot.
The last time Massachusetts lawmakers in the heavily Roman Catholic state had a chance to weigh in on the issue of gay marriage was in 2002, when the constitutional convention was gaveled to a close before any vote took place. Near-brawls erupted among citizens who attended, and raised voices were heard in the normally sedate chamber.
The Senate president at the time used parliamentary procedures to prevent a debate or vote on the gay-marriage ban. Senate President Robert Travaglini, a Democrat who favors civil unions, promised not to use such maneuvering this time.