Supporters of the amendment, which would define marriage as between a man and woman, had collected 170,000 signatures to secure the referendum, but the state legislature still needed to approve it.
Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay marriage, and about 8,000 same-sex couples have wed in the state since the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2003 that the state Constitution gives gay people the right to marry, according to the Associated Press.
If voters approve the referendum, previous gay marriages would remain intact but new ones would be barred.
Fifty votes were needed to allow the referendum to proceed. Sixty-one lawmakers voted in favor of the language and 132 voted against it, reported the AP.
Prior to the vote, Democratic Gov.-elect Deval Patrick met with lawmakers urging them to skip the vote on the last day of their session, which would have effectively killed the referendum.
Backers of the amendment, however, argued that the voters — not the courts — should decide on something as important as marriage.
Last fall, the legislature angered amendment supporters and Gov. Mitt Romney for recessing without voting on the measure.
Crowds of people for and against the amendment rallied in front of the Statehouse on Tuesday. One of the supporters of the referendum held a sign saying, “Let the people vote,” while someone among those protesting the referendum across the street held a sign that said, “Let the people marry.”