Supporters of gay rights waged a 14-year effort to put legislation on the state's lawbooks banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment and commercial matters. That effort succeeded in 1989 with the passage of the gay rights law, which added "sexual orientation" to the forms of discrimination declared illegal.
With that law on the books, attention turned to legal recognition for gay couples, which would give long-time partners rights benefits in areas such as health and insurance now reserved for married couples. Simultaneously, religious and cultural traditionalists worked to preempt this extension of marital rights to gays by codifying marriage as a union of man and woman. Over the years, 37 states passed laws, some by popular referenda, specifically banning the legalization of marriage between two men or two women.
Action to codify and recognize gay couples took three forms:
--"Domestic partner" legislation, under which state governments would extend to unmarried same-sex (and opposite-sex) committed partners of state employees the same benefits as spouses. A number of Masschusetts cities and towns have adopted domestic partner ordinances.
--Efforts to legalize gay marriage, meaning the state would begin issuing marriage licenses to pairs of men and pairs of women, granting the same legal rights and protections now enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.
--"Civil union" legislation, which would provide separate but equivalent legal rights to officially recognized gay couples without calling their relationship a "marriage."
Action on both sides of the gay marriage question heated up nationally and locally after Dec. 20, 1999, when the Vermont Supreme Court ordered in Baker v. State that the same-sex couples could not be denied the benefits of marriage under state law. The court ordered the Vermont Legislature to come up with a law that would extend equal protection to same-sex couples; on April 26, 2000, the Legislature approved the nation's first, and so far only, civil union law, recognizing gay couples as legal entities under state law but stopping short of the marriage-license level of recognition. Then-Gov. Howard Dean signed the bill into law the next day.
In Massachusetts, a long-running effort to put a "Defense of Marriage" constitutional amendment before the voters was thwarted in 2002 when lawmakers, meeting in joint House-Senate Constitutional Conventions, declined to take any action on the proposed amendment. Such action is a necessary step in putting constitutional questions before voters. A series of court actions against the Legislature for refusing to act failed in 2002. The proposed amendments were re-filed for the 2003-2004 legislative cycle, but once again, members left the proposed amendment on the agenda for their constitutional convention without taking action.
The state Senate has always been much more amenable to the extension of rights to gay partners than the House. In particular, House Speaker Thomas Finneran (D-Mattapan) has steadfastly opposed domestic partner, civil union and gay marriage legislation, while the Senate has repeatedly passed domestic partner bills. Neither branch has ever voted on civil union or gay marriage bills; such legislation has always perished in committee.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman John Rogers (D-Norwood), with the tacit approval of the speaker, had for a number of years backed a gay-marriage ban and blocked advancement of civil-union and gay marriage bills. But in October, Rogers revealed that a task force was meeting behind closed doors to consider the kind of civil-union statute Vermont now had on its books. Advocates for gay couples hailed the change of heart, but held out hope that a lawsuit filed by seven gay and lesbian couples would lead to full recognition of gay marriage, complete with marriage licenses. The state Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments on the case in March.
Gov. Mitt Romney said after taking office that he supported civil unions but not gay marriage.
Both House and Senate lawmakers decided Nov. 12 to postpone a vote on a proposed ban on gay marriage until Feb. 11, 2004. The decision by Legislators to quickly recess their Constitutional Convention came as the Supreme Judicial Court continued to weigh a lawsuit brought by seven gay couples who claimed the state discriminated against them by refusing them the right to marry. Lawmakers on Beacon Hill were reportedly trying to craft some sort of compromise legislation where gay rights could be expanded without actually legalizing gay marriage. The Legislature had signaled that it preferred to wait until the SJC ruled before it considered anything as weighty as a constitutional change.