On this much, advocates on both sides agree: Just how Massachusetts lawmakers volley the Supreme Judicial Court's mandate to begin issuing gay marriage licenses May 17 could be a bellwether for the issue's national course.
"The fact that this is the first place — the first test is always the most important," said state Rep. Liz Malia, a Democrat, one of three openly gay legislators.
The Massachusetts Legislature was to once again take up the issue in a second constitutional convention, scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon.
"If we as a state can take a stand for marriage as it has always been defined in public policy then I believe that can send a signal across the country that even liberal Massachusetts is holding the line," said Ron Crews, head of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which has been leading the opposition to same-sex marriages.
Lawmakers failed to agree last month on a proposed amendment that banned gay marriage but allowed civil unions, and that same compromise — deemed not good enough by many on both sides — was again in play.
Nationally, much has developed since last month's deadlock. San Francisco started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, a move soon followed by cities both large and small. As thousands rushed to wed, President Bush urged Congress to move swiftly to enact a federal ban on same-sex marriages.
But nowhere have lawmakers been faced with a message as strong as the one Massachusetts' highest court sent in November.
"This is the first state where the legality is clear," said Democratic state Rep. David Linsky, a lawyer and supporter of same-sex marriage.
The court's order sparked a legislative scramble to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriages. But the earliest the constitution could be amended is 2006.
Whatever action lawmakers take should not bear too much weight nationally because it still must clear several legislative hurdles before reaching voters, said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
"So for at least two and a half years, gay people will be able to marry, and that's what has upset non-Massachusetts folks the most," Isaacson said.
Reaching any accord has been difficult, with lawmakers as divided as the general public on an issue that is inextricably linked to tradition, religion and sexuality. Lawmakers suspended their last constitutional convention Feb. 12 after two days of emotional debate ended with three failed attempts at passing a proposed ban.
While House Speaker Thomas Finneran and Senate President Robert Travaglini, both Democrats, continue to predict a new version will pass, the number of competing factions within the Legislature left the outcome of uncertain.
"There are splits everywhere. There are splits among the progressives, the moderates, our opponents," Isaacson said.
While there was growing speculation that a combination of fatigue and pragmatism would lead to compromise, legislators said they learned one important lesson from round one of the debate — that nothing is predictable.
"There's still a lot of intrigue out there. There's still a lot of questions," said Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees, a Republican whose name is on the current amendment.
The state's high court first ruled in November that the state's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional gave lawmakers 180 days to fix the problem.
"Whether and whom to marry, how to express sexual intimacy, and whether and how to establish a family — these are among the most basic of every individual's liberty and due process rights," the majority opinion said. "And central to personal freedom and security is the assurance that the laws will apply equally to persons in similar situations."
In February, after the state Senate asked for clarification, the court ruled that only full, equal marriage rights for gay couples — rather than civil unions — would be constitutional, erasing any doubts that the nation's first same-sex marriages could take place in the state beginning in mid-May.
"The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal," the four justices who ruled in favor of gay marriage wrote in the advisory opinion. A bill that would allow for civil unions, but falls short of marriage, makes for "unconstitutional, inferior, and discriminatory status for same-sex couples."