Massachusetts lawmakers voted to block a constitutional amendment letting voters decide whether to ban gay marriage in the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriages.
The narrow vote - five short of what was required to put the measure to voters - was a victory for gay marriage advocates and a devastating blow to efforts to reverse a historic 2003 court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
The proposal needed 50 votes to advance to the 2008 ballot. It got 45, with 151 lawmakers opposed. As the tally was announced, the halls of the Legislature erupted in cheers and applause from supporters of gay marriage.
"We're proud of our state today, and we applaud the Legislature for showing that Massachusetts is strongly behind fairness," said Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.
"Equality for gay and lesbian citizens has enriched our state, made our communities stronger, and our families happier," Swislow said. "The vote today was the triumph of time, experience, and understanding over fear and prejudice."
Opponents of gay marriage vowed to press on, but Thursday's defeat after more than three years of sometimes wrenching debate could prove insurmountable. Any effort to mount a new ballot question would take years at a time political support in Massachusetts is swinging firmly behind gay marriage.
For gay couples, the vote marked what could be the end of a struggle that began in 2001, when seven same-sex couples, denied marriage licenses, filed a lawsuit.
More than 8,500 same sex couples have married in Massachusetts since it became legal in May 2004.
In contrast to several past joint sessions, there was no debate Thursday: state Senate President Therese Murray opened the constitutional convention by calling for a vote, and the session was gaveled to a close immediately after.
The vote is also a victory for the state's Democratic leadership, including Gov. Deval Patrick, a vocal supporter of gay marriage, who pressed lawmakers up until the final moments to block the measure.
Leading up to the joint legislative session, there were indications that gay marriage supporters were gaining ground. A handful of lawmakers who had voted in favor of the amendment in the past said they were reconsidering their vote.
One lawmakers who had voted in favor of the amendment - Democratic Rep. Anthony Verga - was unable to attend the joint session after falling and injuring himself Wednesday.
Outside the Legislature, hours before the vote, hundreds rallied on both sides of the issue.
"We believe it's unconstitutional not to allow people to vote on this," said Rebekah Beliveau, a 24-year-old student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary who stood with fellow college-age amendment supporters across the street from the Statehouse.
"We're standing up not necessarily on the issue of same-sex marriage, but our right to vote," Beliveau said.
Across the road, gay marriage advocates waved signs that read, "Wrong to Vote on Rights" and "All Families Are Equal."
Jean Chandler, 62, came with fellow members of her Baptist church in an effort to rebuff the image that strict followers of the Bible are opposed to gay marriage.
"I think being gay is like being left-handed," Chandler said. "If we decided left-handed people couldn't marry, what kind of society would we be?"
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