BOSTON (AP) _ Gay couples have been marrying in Massachusetts for more than three years, but the battle over same-sex marriage in the only state that allows it is anything but settled.
Lawmakers meet Thursday in a special joint session to decide the fate of a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn the landmark 2003 court ruling granting gays the right to marry.
They have three options: send the question to voters next year, kill it, or postpone the vote.
The outcome could not only have an effect on gay couples hoping to wed in Massachusetts, but on the fate of same-sex marriage nationwide and even the presidential ambitions of former Gov. Mitt Romney.
Both sides have pumped thousands of dollars into television, radio, Internet and telephone campaigns. Amendment supporters accuse Gov. Deval Patrick of trading job offers for votes, something Patrick denies. Democratic heavyweights such as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have called local leaders, fearing a nasty gay marriage fight could detract from the presidential race.
Much has changed in Massachusetts since the last vote when lawmakers narrowly backed the amendment.
Last session, two of the state's three top political leaders, Romney among them, opposed gay marriage. Now all three, including Patrick and new Senate President Therese Murray, who presides over the joint session, support gay marriage.
Patrick, who is personally lobbying lawmakers and on Saturday became the first sitting governor to march in Boston's gay pride parade, has warned of ``great passions and great fear and great intolerance'' among supporters of the amendment.
``All the (court) did was affirm an old principle that people come before their government as equals, that if the government is going to give marriage licenses to anyone, then they must give them to everybody, even if your choice of spouse is someone of the same gender,'' Patrick said.
In order for the question to reach the ballot, at least 50 of the state's 200 lawmakers must approve the question in back-to-back legislative sessions.
Fifty-seven lawmakers have either voted for the proposed amendment or have pledged to do so. Changing eight votes would bring supporters of gay marriage below 50 votes and block the question.
Marc Solomon, campaign director of the pro-gay marriage group MassEquality, said activists are working furiously to round up enough votes to kill the question, arguing that the rights of minority groups shouldn't be put to a popular vote.
``For us to be able to show the rest of the country that at least according to our Legislature that marriage equality is good and fine and worth protecting sends a message around the country that you can do this, too,'' he said.
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which supports the amendment, said the group of 57 lawmakers is holding firm.
Opponents of gay marriage fear a defeat for the amendment could spawn a new round of legal challenges to force gay marriage in other states, especially if lawmakers agree to rescind a 1913 law that keeps same-sex couples from other states from marrying in Massachusetts.
``If same-sex marriage continues in Massachusetts and with the 1913 law possibly being rescinded, then gay marriage would replicate to other states,'' Mineau said.
The fate of gay marriage in Massachusetts could also be a factor in the race for president.
Some conservatives have faulted Romney for not doing enough to block gay marriage while governor. A defeat of the amendment could stir old resentments, but it could also let Romney portray himself at a lone conservative on the culture war's front lines.
``I think gay marriage and its history in Massachusetts will work for him in the long run, becoming something he can rail against,'' said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
The real test Romney faces is convincing voters that his opposition to gay marriage is a deeply held belief, and not a political calculation, Zelizer said.