The highest courts in two states dealt gay rights advocates dual setbacks Thursday, rejecting same-sex couples' bid to win marriage rights in New York and reinstating a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Georgia.
Activists had hoped to widen marriage rights for gays and lesbians beyond Massachusetts with a legal victory in liberal New York, but the Court of Appeals ruled 4-2 that the state's law allowing marriage only between a man and a woman was constitutional. Current law bars same-sex couples from marriage and the hundreds of family protections provided to married couples.
In the prevailing opinion, Judge Robert S. Smith nonetheless wrote, "We express our hope that the participants in the controversy over same-sex marriage will address their arguments to the Legislature."
The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the New York Court of Appeals decision. "We are disappointed by the court's decision, but we will continue to fight for marriage protections for our family," said Amy Tripi of Highland. Tripi is raising a child with her partner of nine years, Jeanne Vitale.
"Today's decision refuses to recognize that gay and lesbian New Yorkers and their families are full citizens of this state. But this struggle is far from over," said Susan Sommer, Senior Counsel at Lambda Legal and lead attorney on Hernandez v. Robles, one of four marriage cases decided today by the Court of Appeals. "The majority of New Yorkers recognize that it's only fair to allow same-sex couples to marry. We call upon Mayor Bloomberg and Attorney General Spitzer to fulfill their promises to work with state legislators to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry."
The court adopted justifications for the state law barring marriage by same-sex couples advanced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Pointing out that stable relationships between parents are important for children, that straight couples can conceive children by "accident," and that gay couples can only have children with advance planning, Bloomberg and Spitzer argued that straight couples need the stability of marriage, but gay couples do not.
The decision comes two years after gay and lesbian couples, supported by gay-rights groups who saw a chance for a major court win in a populous state, sued for the right to wed.
"Clearly, in bringing the case and pushing it as hard as they did, it's pretty good evidence that they thought they had a substantial chance of victory," said Ohio State University law professor Marc Spindelman, who tracks lesbian and gay legal issues. "It's hard to read the decision as anything other than a rebuff of gay and lesbian couples."
In response to today's NY gay marriage decision, Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean has issued the following statement:
"As Democrats, we believe that every American has a right to equal protection under the law and to live in dignity. And we must respect the right of every family to live in dignity with equal rights, responsibilities and protections under the law. Today's decision by the New York Court of Appeals, which relies on outdated and bigoted notions about families, is deeply disappointing, but it does not end the effort to achieve this goal.
"As that essential process moves forward, it is up to the State legislature to act to protect the equal rights of every New Yorker and for the debate on how to ensure those rights to proceed without the rancor and divisiveness that too often surrounds this issue."
In Georgia, where three-quarters of voters approved a ban on gay marriage when it was on the ballot in 2004, the top court reinstated the ban Thursday, ruling unanimously that it did not violate the state's single-subject rule for ballot measures.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs had argued that the ballot language was misleading, asking voters to decide on same-sex marriage and civil unions, separate issues about which many people had different opinions.
The twin rulings, which came less than two hours apart, become part of the nationwide debate that has continued to evolve since a Massachusetts court ruling in late 2003 ushered in a spate of gay marriage controversies from Boston to San Francisco.