Landmark Ruling on Gay Marriage ; Massachusetts High Court Rules That Same-Sex Marriage Is a Constitutional Right and Tells the Legislature to Resolve the Issue

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The landmark decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Tuesday went further than any court yet toward legalizing gay marriage in the United States.

But couples eager to make their union official can't start lining up at the courthouse Wednesday. The tribunal stopped short of ordering the state to start issuing marriage licenses. Instead, it ruled the state's denial of gay marriage unconstitutional - and gave the legislature 180 days to resolve the issue. This marks the first time a high court has ruled that civil marriage between a same-sex couple is a state constitutional right.

The ruling means that the cultural divide over one of the most contentious issues in America will likely only deepen from here. Gay rights activists hope it will bolster their cause in other parts of the country, while conservative groups are equally determined to use it to solidify a growing backlash. "This is the preeminent wedge issue," says independent pollster John Zogby. Now it has even greater "potential to be a wedge issue in 2004."

In its 4-to-3 ruling, the court held that "barring an individual from the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution."

Unlike court decisions in Hawaii and Vermont, the Massachusetts tribunal didn't send the decision back to a trial court or explicitly allow the legislature to create its own solution. Instead, the court gave legislators and state regulators 180 days to adapt state law to the more expansive definition of marriage set out in its decision. "It's a victory" for same-sex marriage advocates, says Kate Silbaugh, a family-law professor at Boston University. "This is the most expansive decision there has been."

The court redefines marriage as the voluntary union between two persons - a definition adopted earlier by a court in the Canadian province of Ontario. The ruling emphasizes the "enormous private and social advantages" that only marriage brings.

As a result, Ms. Silbaugh, says the Massachusetts high court is not likely to accept civil union as an acceptable alternative if offered by the legislature.

Only a state constitutional amendment redefining marriage as between a man and a woman could block the court's decision. But the earliest that could get on the ballot in Massachusetts would be 2006.

Reaction to the court's ruling was predictably mixed. Some gay rights advocates were disappointed the decision didn't immediately allow same-sex couples to get married. But many still considered it an important step forward. "The Massachusetts supreme court today made history," says Winnie Stachelberg of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group.

Unlike the Vermont decision in 1999, in which the court told the legislature to find a solution and which ultimately led to the 2000 civil-union law, the Massachusetts court "made it fairly clear that anything short of civil marriage would violate the equal-protection clause of the Massachusetts constitution. …