The Massachusetts constitutional convention will reconvene today.

BOSTON (AP) – Massachusetts lawmakers debated a constitutional ban on gay marriage for more than six hours Wednesday but ended the day as divided as they began – and still with no resolution on an issue that has drawn nationwide scrutiny.

Legislators meeting in joint session at a constitutional convention shot down two compromise proposals that would have allowed for civil unions, rather than full-fledged marriages the state’s highest court has ordered to begin taking place in mid-May.

Lawmakers are to reconvene Thursday to take up a third compromise proposal to legalize civil unions and ban gay marriage – continuing the debate on an issue that has put Massachusetts at the forefront of a contentious social, political, religious and legal issue.

Massachusetts was thrust into the epicenter of the national gay marriage debate in November when the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled it was unconstitutional to ban gay couples from marriage, a decision that was reaffirmed last week.

The frenzied first day unfolded before more than 4,000 spectators in the Statehouse and reflected a Legislature deeply divided about how to respond to the court’s 4-3 ruling.

“We are as divided as the Supreme Judicial Court. We are as divided as the people of Massachusetts. We’re as divided as the nation on this,” said House Speaker Thomas Finneran, an ardent opponent of gay marriage. “We’re doing the best we can. We’re human beings. Sometimes we come up short.”

There already was a proposal to change the state constitution to ban gay marriages, but the court’s ruling gave it a new sense of urgency. Still, it will require a simple majority of the Legislature to approve a proposed amendment this year, then again in the 2005-06 legislative session before it could wind up on the November 2006 ballot for voters to consider.

House and Senate leaders met behind closed doors after the 8:30 p.m. EST adjournment and said they were working on a third civil unions compromise – very similar to one already rejected – that they hoped would be able to sway the few votes necessary to cobble together a majority against gay marriage.

Gay-rights advocates conceded it appeared support was mounting for a ban.

“It’s increasingly clear that the Legislature is positioning itself to take back the marriage rights we currently have, to take back over 1,000 protections we currently have, to enshrine discrimination into our constitution, and to create a system of separate but unequal,” said Arline Isaacson, co-leader of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

The Legislature’s inability to reach a compromise left the outcome of the constitutional convention in flux after a day of impassioned debate about the meaning of the constitution, the lessons of slavery, and the importance of preserving an institution that has existed as a heterosexual union for 3,000 years.

Opponents rooted their arguments in the constitution’s guarantee of every citizen’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, D-Boston, drew upon her experience as a black woman growing up in Arkansas, where the public hospital did not allow her mother to deliver her children.

“I know the pain of being less than equal and I cannot and will not impose that status on anyone else,” a teary-eyed Wilkerson said. “I was but one generation removed from an existence in slavery. I could not in good conscience ever vote to send anyone to that place from which my family fled.”

Supporters of a ban called for the Legislature to allow voters the opportunity to weigh in on this fundamental cultural issue.

“Mother Nature left her blueprint behind and she left it in DNA, a man and a woman,” said Rep. Marie Parente, D-Milford. “I didn’t create that combination, Mother Nature did.”

At the end of the day, the Legislature voted 104-94 to defeat a bipartisan proposal crafted by Senate leaders who wished to ban gay marriage while still extending equal benefits to gay couples.

Condemned by gay-rights advocates and their conservative opponents, it would have automatically legalized civil unions in Massachusetts in November 2006, the earliest an amendment could be placed on a ballot for voter approval.

If the amendment was approved at that time, gay couples married in the interim period would have been stripped of their licenses and considered part of a civil union.

Coming Thursday

The compromise to be considered Thurdsay is almost identical, but says nothing about what would happen to gay couples who are married in that two-year period, according to House Ways and Means Chairman John Rogers, D-Norwood, who helped craft the proposal.

Earlier in the day, lawmakers narrowly defeated a surprise amendment by Finneran that would have given the Legislature the option of adopting civil unions at some point, rather than automatically establishing them if the constitution were ultimately amended by voters.

Crowds chanted “Let the people vote!” and “Equality now!” outside the House chamber at the start of the session. More than 1,500 people rallied outside.

The issues is certain to have political undertones for state legislators facing re-election in November – and in the presidential race, particularly if U.S. Sen. John Kerry, a Mssachusetts Democrat ends up as the party’s nominee. Although he opposes gay marriage, his residency from a predominantly Catholic state still viewed as liberal was likely to draw him into debates over the issue with the Republican President Bush.

The competing amendments and shifting alliances injected an unusual level of frenzy into a Democrat-dominated Legislature known for its carefully orchestrated debates. Democrats control 169 of the 200 seats. (One seat is vacant.)

If gay marriage takes place in Massachusetts, federal lawsuits would likely ensue as gay couples seek recognition in other states and by the federal government. While state marriages are normally respected in other jurisdictions, 38 states and the federal government have approved laws or amendments barring the recognition of gay marriage.

Massachusetts civil unions would convey many of the benefits and responsibilities of marriage but would only be recognized – conceivably – in Vermont, which enacted civil union legislation in 2000.

Adopted in 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution is the oldest still-governing written constitution in the world. It has been amended 120 times, most recently in 2000 when voters endorsed making the federal census the basis for legislative redistricting and stripping voting rights from incarcerated felons.

AP-ES-02-11-04 2233EST

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