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Lawmakers Struggle With Next Move on Issue of Gay Marriage

By Pam Belluck

The New York Times -- BOSTON

The Massachusetts legislature was awash in turmoil and indecision Wednesday as lawmakers struggled to come to terms with the meaning of the court ruling that legalized gay marriage in the state.

The ruling, issued Tuesday by the Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest judicial body, gave the Legislature 180 days to conform. But it left to the 200 lawmakers the choice of what steps to take, if any, to allow gays to obtain marriage licenses.

“Everything has changed today,” said state Sen. Steven A. Baddour, a Democrat who is vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a proponent of civil unions, not marriage, for gays.

Conservative groups opposed to same-sex marriage deluged Massachusetts legislators with e-mail messages.

Proponents of the decision were busy trying to calm fears, saying that people would come to realize gay marriage was not a threat to anyone and that they had no intention of flooding with litigation those states that do not accept it.

“My perspective about what we need to be doing is to tell people why this decision is a good thing, how it’s going to take nothing away from anyone else,” said Mary Bonauto, a lawyer for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders who successfully argued the court case on behalf of seven same-sex couples seeking Massachusetts marriage licenses.

Wednesday was the last day of the legislative session -- the lawmakers do not formally reconvene until Jan. 7 -- and the Statehouse was buzzing.

“In my seven years in the Legislature, this has been the most difficult issue I’ve had in front of me,” said state Rep. Gene L. O’Flaherty, a Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and supports civil unions.

Some legislators seemed to throw up their hands and say they would neither enact changes to institute gay marriage nor try to find ways around the ruling.

“The preliminary legal analysis suggests” that legislative action may be “unwarranted,” said the state Senate president, Robert E. Travaglini, a Democrat who favors civil union but not gay marriage.

In the absence of any legislative change, legal experts said, same-sex couples would still be able to marry six months from now, while lawmakers, having avoided taking a position, could assert that the court, though deferring to them for a six-month period, had nonetheless tied their hands. “They could say, ’I’m personally opposed to it, but what can I do?”’ said Lou DiNatale, a political analyst at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts.

Some officials, including Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, tried to gather steam for a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage.