Liberals hailed Tuesday’s ruling by Massachusetts’ highest court that the state constitution allows gays to marry a win for civil rights, while conservative Christians pledged to step up their fight against what they deem an assault on traditional marriage.

The 4-3 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court gave the Legislature six months to rewrite the state’s marriage laws to benefit gay couples. The ruling goes further than similar decisions in other states, because it deals specifically with gay marriage, as opposed to civil unions, which are already allowed in Vermont.

“Without the right to marry–or more properly, the right to choose to marry–one is excluded from the full range of human experience and denied full protection of the laws,” Justice C.J. Marshall wrote for the majority.

While acknowledging that many people object to gay marriage on religious or moral grounds, the opinion termed civil marriage a vital but “wholly secular institution” that has been recognized as a civil right.

Civil-liberties groups agreed wholeheartedly.

“This court ruling says that individuals who are police officers, firefighters and teachers who serve in our military and pay taxes cannot be denied the same rights as other couples simply because they are gay or lesbian,” said Matt Coles, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

Groups opposed to gay marriage, meanwhile, accused the Massachusetts court of “judicial tyranny.”

“Marriage is about more than tax credits and other financial benefits. It is about preserving the best environment for raising children and the safest, healthiest living situation for adults,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “Without strong marriages as our bedrock, our nation will suffer a devastating blow.”

The Catholic bishops of Massachusetts called on the state’s lawmakers to overturn the court action, the Boston Globe reported. Jim Wideman, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England, said he hopes clergy will contact the Legislature “just to let them know there’s a large number of people in Massachusetts who believe the court has made a wrong decision.”

The state’s Republican governor, Mitt Romney, said on NBC’s “Today Show” that he would push for a constitutional amendment to block gay couples from getting married.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell predicted the people of Massachusetts would “say no” to gay marriage.

But others sought to draw a distinction between the civil and religious institutions of marriage.

“This ruling will never interfere with the right of religious institutions–churches, synagogues and mosques–to determine who will be married within the context of their respective religious faiths,” said Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign. “This is about whether gay and lesbian couples in long-term, committed relationships will be afforded the benefits, rights and protections afforded other citizens to best care for their partners and children.”

The Metropolitan and Community Churches, a denomination that performs more than 6,000 same-sex weddings a year, celebrated the decision. The Rev. Troy Perry, the denomination’s founder and moderator, who wed his 18-year partner legally this summer in Canada, told reporters at the time he believed at least one state would rule in favor of same-sex marriage within five years. “I had no idea this would happen in five months,” he marveled.

The board of directors of the Interfaith Alliance, in consultation with President C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister, said in a statement that Tuesday’s ruling by the Massachusetts court “affirmed what kinds of interpersonal associations are subject to the protection of law within its jurisdiction, civil liberties that should rightly be extended to all Americans.”

The issue of gay marriage is shaping up as a wedge issue in the 2004 presidential elections, creating a dilemma for both parties. While tolerance for homosexuals has risen since the 1980s, many Americans draw a line at gay marriage. According to a new poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, support for same-sex marriage has declined since July, apparently in backlash to recent gains by the gay-rights movement.

Voters who support President Bush are most united on the issue, with 78 percent opposing gay marriage and 53 percent strongly opposing the idea. Voters who prefer to see a Democrat in the White House are split, with 46 percent favoring gay marriage and 48 percent opposed.

Religious persons are less likely than the non-religious to support gay marriage, with a full 80 percent of evangelical Protestants opposing the notion.

Three of the nine candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination support full marriage rights for gay couples—Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, civil rights activist Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun from Illinois.

Five of the other six, while opposing gay marriage, are on record as saying they would support civil unions, which allow many of the rights and benefits of marriage without calling it a marriage.

President Bush says he opposes gay marriage, but he has avoided taking a stand on amending the Constitution to define marriage as between a man and woman, a move backed by the religious right but opposed by Bush’s “compassionate conservative” constituency.

“Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman,” Bush said in a brief statement Tuesday afternoon. “I will work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.”

Southern Baptist Convention leaders Richard Land and Al Mohler renewed earlier calls supporting passage of a Federal Marriage Amendment following the Massachusetts ruling.

“By denying that the state has a right to prevent homosexuals from marrying, this state court has, in effect, destroyed marriage in the state of Massachusetts,” Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote in his Weblog on “This decision should be a wake-up call for anyone still unconvinced of the need for the Federal Marriage Amendment. If we do not act fast, there will be nothing left of marriage to protect.”

“The Federal Marriage Amendment is the only way to adequately deal with this judicial assault on the sanctity of marriage being defined as God intended it, the union of one man and one woman,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Commission, in Baptist Press.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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