Days after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that state lawmakers could vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, legislators on Wednesday put off the vote until after November elections.

House and Senate lawmakers in a special legislative session voted to postpone the gay marriage vote until November 9 — two days after state and national elections.

“They walked away to vote themselves back to office,” said Democratic Rep. Phil Travis, who sought to ban gay marriage. “The majority decided to duck the issue again.”

Senate President Robert Travaglini, a Democrat, could not be reached for comment on the decision.

Julian Zelizer, a professor at Boston University, said he was not surprised by the move.

“I don’t think this is an issue that most legislators want to deal with at this point,” he said. “Voters have very short memories and politicians know that. So if you have something very controversial, do it right after you are elected.”

Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay marriage after a 2003 state court decision ruled that denying it was unconstitutional. More than 8,000 gay and lesbian couples have since wed.

Opponents of gay marriage in Massachusetts tried to introduce an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage in 2002, before the high court’s landmark ruling.

On Monday, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the Legislature could vote on the amendment.

If 50 of the 200 lawmakers in the Legislature approve that amendment this year, it would face a second legislative vote in 2007. If it clears that hurdle, the measure would go before Massachusetts voters in 2008.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican seen as a likely 2008 presidential contender, said legislators have not escaped the issue by delaying the vote. “In a democracy, the people are sovereign,” he said in a statement. “This issue won’t go away until the people are heard.”

Hundreds of gay marriage supporters and opponents gathered outside Boston’s Statehouse to make their voices heard.

“I want them to allow us to have the right to vote on this,” said Christine Cappabiancia, 39, who opposes gay marriage. “This is up to us.”

Eighteen states have amended their constitutions to define marriage as limited to unions between a man and a woman. Same-sex couples have filed lawsuits in 12 states seeking the right to marry.

“It’s a quest for justice,” said Rev. David Horst, 51, a Unitarian Universalist minister who said he had conducted same-sex marriages at his Malden parish. “This is the civil rights issue of our day.”

Gay marriage opponent Roberto Miranda, 50, disagreed. “This is not a civil rights issue,” Miranda said. “For us, civil rights relates to characteristics that cannot be changed. I believe that homosexuality is a choice.”

Ken Repp, 51, and Chris Johnson, 47, who said they had been a couple for 18 years and married for two, argued otherwise.

“It’s not a choice to me,” Repp said. “Why would one choose a lifestyle where you have less rights to your relationships? How dumb would I be to choose that?”

© 2006 Reuters