Several weeks ago, the Massachusetts House of Representatives and state Senate convened a Constitutional Convention to debate and consider a handful of constitutional amendments before the Legislature, or the “General Court” as the Legislature is officially called. Two of the amendments were initiated by citizens’ petitions, one preventing same-sex couples from marrying or receiving any legal benefits, the other making health care a constitutional right. The amendment banning gay marriage passed, while the health care amendment was killed procedurally.
According to Article 48 of the Massachusetts Constitution, if a group of citizens presents a constitutional amendment to the General Court, the amendment must receive the affirmative vote of at least 50 of the General Court’s 200 members (160 representatives and 40 senators) by two consecutive General Courts (i.e. separate legislative sessions) before the amendment goes to the ballot to be considered by Massachusetts voters. If the marriage amendment passes again during this new legislative session, this amendment will be voted on in November 2008.
I have opposed this amendment since the day it was first filed by a legislator in 2003, and have supported equal marriage rights for same-sex couples since before I was elected to the House of Representatives. I support equal marriage rights because I don’t believe that government should be involved in peoples’ private lives, I think that all Massachusetts families should have the same protections for their children, and I do not believe there are any valid reasons why a society would deny one adult from marrying another adult.
It is important for voters to understand that, according to the Massachusetts Constitution, when a group of citizens petitions the General Court to amend the constitution, a legislator does not merely rubber-stamp each petition but rather considers the merits of the petition. That is why the phrase “let the people vote” regarding the amendment contradicts the constitution’s clear duties assigned to legislators, which is to vote yea or nay on the amendment and not just yea.
I acknowledge that some people believe that the marriage amendment should be voted on by the general public because the amendment and its definition of marriage are so important to them. However, this sense of importance must be weighed against the importance of this amendment’s passage on the lives of thousands of same-sex couples in Massachusetts, and gay people in general. More broadly, our Founding Fathers laid out a vision of self-government that established a delicate balance between the will of the majority (Congress) and the protections of the rights of the minority (the Bill of Rights).
The Massachusetts Constitution also seeks this balance. For example, under Article 48 in the current constitution, a citizens’ petition or constitutional amendment cannot be filed to infringe on religion, town government, the right to trial by jury, or freedoms of assembly, press, elections and speech. If a group of citizens collected enough signatures to prohibit the practice of a certain religion, or a legislator filed an amendment to prevent criticism of the government, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) would not even allow the amendment to be filed.
United States history also reflects the fact that, in many cases, the creation of rights for a certain group or groups of people is more often established by the courts than the Legislature or the general public. Slavery was first ended in Massachusetts, after the SJC prohibited the crime against humanity. The prohibition on interracial marriage was overturned by the United States Supreme Court. Neither of these expansions of freedom would have been created by a popular referendum.
Furthermore, even when citizens’ petitions have been filed to expand freedom, such efforts are not always successful. In 1915 a group of citizens in Massachusetts filed an amendment to allow women to vote. The referendum, although supported by the Legislature, was defeated at the ballot box (with, of course, only men voting). Therefore, women were denied the vote for another nine years, until the federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed.
Same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, and indeed throughout the country, has been a controversial topic. But as Massachusetts abolitionist Theodore Parker said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
After four years of debate over gay marriage, it’s time to move on and expand that universe.
REP. JAMES B. ELDRIDGE
37th Middlesex District