Technically, the Massachusetts Legislature will handle the debate over how to deal with a court ruling that state marriage laws discriminate against gays.
Practically, the 2004 presidential campaign could be where the battle over the issue is fought — a risky prospect for both President Bush and the Democrats running for the right to face him, according to The New York Times.
The Massachusetts ruling, which incensed conservatives, might energize Mr. Bush's conservative base. But it could also make it tricky for the president to please the GOP's conservative wing while maintaining his appeal to "compassionate conservatives."
Perhaps reflecting that dilemma, the president did not specifically call Wednesday for a constitutional amendment blocking gay marriage, as some conservatives have.
"Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman," the president said in a statement. "I will work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage."
Democrats may face a greater challenge, The Times reports, because the Massachusetts ruling could make cultural issues a hot topic in the 2004 race.
Democrats have often fared poorly on those issues, especially in the South, the newspaper reports. A recent Pew poll of 1,515 Americans found that 59 percent oppose gay marriage.
Many leading Democrats say they oppose gay marriage. But few are willing to support a constitutional amendment barring it because, The Times says, that would hurt any candidate among Democratic primary voters.
A statement by Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt tried to walk that tightrope: supporting gay unions, opposing gay marriage, supporting the right of states to decide for themselves, but asking for the Legislature to heed the court ruling.
"As we move forward, it is my hope that we don't get side-tracked by the right-wing into a debate over a phony constitutional amendment banning gay marriage," Gephardt said.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark said as president he would "support giving gays and lesbians the legal rights that married couples get" but said individual states, not courts, would ultimately decide.
Sen. Joe Lieberman expressed similar feelings. "Although I am opposed to gay marriage, I have also long believed that states have the right to adopt for themselves laws that allow same-sex unions," his statement read. "I will oppose any attempts by the right wing to change the Constitution in response to today's ruling, which would be unnecessary and divisive."
"While I continue to oppose gay marriage, I believe that today's decision calls on the Massachusetts state legislature to take action to ensure equal protection for gay couples," Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said. "These protections are long over due."
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said he was "proud to sign the nation's first law establishing civil unions for same-sex couples." Senator John Edwards of North Carolina said he opposed gay marriage, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich said he supported it. Rev. Al Sharpton, who supports gay marriage, said the ruling had not gone far enough.
Former Illinois Sen. Carol Mosely-Braun said "discrimination against same-sex couples is wrong," but did not weigh in on the specific issue of gay marriage.
In 1996, Congress passed a Defense of Marriage Act that exempts any state from honoring gay marriages from other states. Of the Democratic candidates who were in Congress at the time, Gephardt and Lieberman supported the bill; Kerry and Mosely-Braun opposed it.
In its 4-3 decision, the Supreme Judicial Court gave the Legislature 180 days to rewrite the state's marriage laws for the benefit of gay couples.
"We declare that barring an individual from the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution," Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote.
The seven gay couples who filed the lawsuit and their attorney argue that the decision leaves state lawmakers little leeway to do anything but change state marriage statutes to reflect the court's decision.
But legal experts and some opponents said the decision — while emphatically supporting a gay right to marriage — is ambiguous and leaves open the possibility of civil unions, similar to those practiced in Vermont, rather than marriage. It also is based on the state Constitution, which could be amended by the voters.
Vermont's high court issued a decision in 1999 similar to the Massachusetts court ruling, but told the Legislature it could allow gay couples to marry or create a similar institution that confers the rights and benefits of marriage. Lawmakers chose the second.
After Tuesday's ruling, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and other state lawmakers vowed to push for the constitutional amendment.
Following similar court rulings, Hawaii and Alaska "made these kind of constitutional amendments, and I think we have to do the same thing to preserve the institution," Romney said Wednesday on NBC.
An amendment could go before voters in Massachusetts as early as 2006 if it won approval by the end of the 2003-2004 legislative session. It also would require approval during the 2005-2006 session. A joint session of the House and Senate, which rejected the amendment last year, is scheduled to meet to debate the measure in February.
Even if such an amendment makes it to the ballot in 2006, Massachusetts voters will have had two years to see that same-sex marriages pose no threat to society, said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is gay.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell, debating on Frank on CBS News' The Early Show Wednesday, responded: "The people of Massachusetts, one of the more liberal states, will do what Hawaii and other liberal states have done. They'll say no to it."