Nov 18, 12:05 PM (ET)
BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts' highest court ruled 4-3 Tuesday that the state's ban on same- sex marriage is unconstitutional and gave lawmakers 180 days to come up with a solution that would allow gay couples to wed.
The court did not issue marriage licenses to the seven couples who sued and left the details to the Legislature.
"Whether and whom to marry, how to express sexual intimacy, and whether and how to establish a family - these are among the most basic of every individual's liberty and due process rights," the majority opinion said. "And central to personal freedom and security is the assurance that the laws will apply equally to persons in similar situations."
This decision, lawyers said, rules that gay couples are entitled to all the rights of marriage and that creating a separate class of marriage - such as civil unions - would not be acceptable.
"This is a very good day for gay and lesbian families in Massachusetts and throughout the country," said attorney Mary Bonauto.
Gay and lesbian advocates had been cheered by a series of advances this year, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down anti-sodomy laws, the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, and a Canadian appeals court ruling that it was unconstitutional to deny gay couples the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples. Belgium and the Netherlands also have legalized gay marriage.
In addition to Vermont, courts in Hawaii and Alaska have previously ruled that the states did not have a right to deny marriage to gay couples. In those two states, the decisions were followed by the adoption of constitutional amendments limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. No American court has ordered the issuance of a marriage license - a privilege reserved for heterosexual couples.
The U.S. House is currently considering a constitutional ban on gay marriage. President Bush, although he believes marriage should be defined as a union between one man and one woman, recently said that a constitutional amendment is not yet necessary.
The plaintiffs argued that barring them from marrying a partner of the same sex denied them access to an intrinsic human experience and violated basic constitutional rights.