From State House News Service:
PLAN WOULD MAKE CIVIL RIGHTS OFF LIMITS IN CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS
By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 10, 2007…..Constitutional amendments altering the initiative petition process received a hearing before a Beacon Hill committee Tuesday as a ballot initiative banning gay marriage awaits a second round of votes from lawmakers.
The bills’ backers, all lawmakers and gay activists, say the outcome of the gay marriage debate will remain unchanged should the bills go through the Legislature and end up on a future ballot.
Two of the bills (H 1772 and S 26) would add, , after “religious institutions” the words “civil rights” to the list of items that can’t be voted on through ballot initiatives.
“That is a right we do not believe should be left to the ballot process,” said Sen. Jarrett Barrios (D-Cambridge), who testified with a panel of gay legislators that included Reps. Carl Sciortino (D-Somerville), Elizabeth Malia (D-Jamaica Plain), and Sarah Peake (D-Cape Cod).
“It is wrong to vote on somebody’s civil rights,” Barrios said before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Another pair of proposals (S 27 and H 1727) raise the amount of votes legislators need to pass a citizen-sponsored ballot initiative to 50 percent from 25 percent.
“Today it’s marriage quality, tomorrow it could be another issue,” Peake said.
Lawmakers, spurred by a state Supreme Judicial Court decision that said they should vote on the gay marriage amendment, advanced the controversial ballot initiative at a Constitutional Convention in January. A second round of votes from lawmakers, and fierce behind-the-scenes lobbying from both sides, is needed before it can head to the 2008 ballot.
Should the bills make it that far, they face the same process.
Asked by Rep. John Keenan (D-Salem) whether they’d consider adding the words “gay marriage” to the bill, Barrios said, “It’s much more broad than marriage for gay and lesbian citizens.”
Sciortino said the bill isn’t too broad. “I think if you talk about civil rights, people know what civil rights are,” he said.
But some said the ballot initiative process is already hard enough.
In nearly 90 years, only three constitutional amendment initiatives have made it to the ballot, according to Evelyn Reilly, director of public policy at the Massachusetts Family Institute, one of the lead organizations behind the initiative banning gay marriage.
“I don’t think that’s proof the initiative petition process is broken and needs to be made more difficult,” she said. “It’s just an attempt to diminish the people’s right to petition.”
Edward Saunders, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, an organization opposed to gay marriage, said he was at the hearing as an observer and the organization does not have an opinion on the legislation at this point.
But Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said when the process was first put together in 1917, three percent of the state’s population – the amount needed for signatures – was a higher threshold.
Nor were there any paid signature gatherers, she said, calling it a “bastardization of the process.”
Charges of fraud and forgery of signatures, which gay marriage opponents call overblown, are also a problem, Isaacson said.
“It’s not difficult at all,” she said. “Frighteningly easy.”