BOSTON (AP) – Nearly a month after the Supreme Judicial Court said the state constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry, lawmakers continue to grapple with whether a watered-down version of gay marriage would satisfy the high court’s landmark ruling.

The state Senate on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would legalize Vermont-style civil unions in Massachusetts, then sent the legislation to the SJC for an advisory opinion on whether such a solution would pass the court’s muster.

Senate President Robert Travaglini, D-Boston, said he and other senators want the court to clarify its ruling, which stated that gay couples were entitled to all the rights and benefits of marriage.

“There are a number of legal experts whose opinions differ on the interpretation (of the ruling),” Travaglini said. “Our intention was not to alter or modify the decision of the court, it was just to seek clarification.”

Because the vote was taken during an informal session, a single objection could have blocked the action, but there were no objections.

The SJC issued its decision on Nov. 18, but gave the Legislature 180 days to act as it “deems appropriate” before the decision takes effect.

Supporters of gay marriage say a civil unions bill giving gay couples the rights of marriage without calling it by that name would fall short of what the court ordered.

They say civil unions won’t allow gay couples to take advantage of the federal benefits that married couples enjoy.

Arline Isaacson of the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus said she is confident the court will reject the civil unions bill as a half-measure.

“They were very clear that they supported civil marriage rights for everyone and we’re confident they’re going to stay with that,” she said.

Isaacson said the difference between same-sex marriage and civil unions is significant.

She said only gay civil marriage would give same-sex couples the chance take advantage of federal benefits like Social Security.

Many lawmakers and legal observers have said that the 180-day waiting period was only designed to give lawmakers time to bring the statutes in line with the decision. It gives no leeway, they argue, to approve anything short of marriage.

Others argue that the decision left the door open for civil unions.

Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and several lawmakers opposed to gay marriage have said they will pursue a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. This process would take up to three years and require a ballot vote in November 2006.

Gerry D’Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, said the Senate’s action won’t alter efforts to push for a constitutional amendment.

“Our major focus is, and will continue to be, to get an amendment defining a marriage as between one man and one woman in the state constitution,” he said. “That really the bottom line of reversing what the Supreme Judicial Court has done.”

State Sen. Jarrett Barrios, who is gay and a supporter of same-sex marriage, opposes the civil unions bill but did not bar the Senate from asking the court’s opinion.

Barrios said civil unions would create a “separate but unequal system” for gay couples, but said asking the SJC to clarify its opinion is an important step.

“It would be important for this body … to avoid unnecessary divisive discussions if in fact our Supreme Judicial Court will find that this misguided civil unions bill doesn’t meet constitutional muster,” Barrios said.

The SJC will likely allow a 30-day period for any group to file friend of the court briefs on the Senate proposal, according Bruce Brock, a spokesman for the court. He said the court will issue its response sometime after that.

In the House, Rep. Charles Murphy, D-Burlington, has said he will submit a civil unions bill, perhaps as early as next week, that would give gay couples all the rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage. This bill would also define marriage as a union between one man and one woman in state statutes, but not change anything in the constitution.

AP-ES-12-11-03 1554EST

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