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Bay State moves closer to gay-marriage challenge

Massachusetts lawmakers approved a measure Tuesday that's needed to put a proposed ban on the ballot in 2008.

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Massachusetts, the only state in the US where gay couples can legally marry, is now much closer to letting the voters decide whether to stick with gay marriage or change the state constitution to ban it.

State legislators, meeting in a constitutional convention Tuesday, took one of two big steps toward putting the issue on the 2008 ballot. Their vote keeps alive a citizen-led initiative to amend the constitution to prevent same-sex marriage, ensuring that the debate over one of the most contentious social issues in America is not finished in Massachusetts.

Gay marriage has been legal in the state since May 2004, after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled Massachusetts' practice of denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples violated its constitution. The ruling applied only in Massachusetts. Twenty-seven other states have amended their constitutions to explicitly prohibit gay marriage.

Now, the stage appears to be set for a major battle in Massachusetts over the issue – one that is likely to draw big money, political muscle, and media from across the country. Polling over the past three years gives both sides reason to hope they could win a popular vote.

The stakes of a ballot vote are high. Either voters would ratify same-sex marriage for the first time, or they would kick it off its only toehold in the United States.

"It would be a national issue, and lots of money would be brought in on both sides," says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "I think ultimately, if it came to a vote in Massachusetts, the pro-gay-marriage side would win. I think the polls show that, and over time people have become more comfortable with it."

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