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“The next question is whether the [1996 federal] Defense of Marriage Act allows a state to say, ‘Regardless of what Massachusetts does, we don’t have to recognize gay marriage here,’” he said.

The issue energizes social and religious conservatives who comprise an important part of the Republican electoral coalition, but Mr. Gillespie said conservatives are divided about whether a constitutional amendment is the preferred approach and about what language any such amendment should include.

Some conservatives say an amendment would intrude on the traditional role of states in legislating marriage and family issues, said Dale Carpenter, a member of the pro-homosexual Republican Unity Coalition advisory board and former head of the Texas Log Cabin Republicans.

Proponents say same-sex “marriage,” rather than civil unions, is necessary to assure all the benefits, including Social Security for survivors, afforded to heterosexual married couples.

But Mr. Gillespie said, “I have a hard time distinguishing between civil union and gay marriage.”

The issue is gathering political momentum. In California yesterday, several groups sued California Gov. Gray Davis, who signed domestic partnership legislation Friday. The law gives nearly 300 marital and spousal rights to same-sex couples and heterosexual couples older than 62 who register as domestic partners in California.

The Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund filed suit in California Superior Court in Sacramento yesterday, saying the domestic partnership law effectively nullified a ballot measure approved in 2000 by more than 61 percent of voters. Proposition 22 declared the only valid marriage was between one man and one woman.

“California voters have spoken and they don’t want marriage hijacked by Governor Davis or anyone else,” said Vincent McCarthy, director of the Center for Marriage Law of New Milford, Conn., which supports the lawsuit against Mr. Davis.

Cheryl Wetzstein contributed to this report.