WASHINGTON -- In a major defeat for the campaign to gain a right for homosexual couples to marry, the Hawaii Supreme Court has reinstated a law that allows a marriage license only to a man and a woman.
Hawaii was one of two states where gay rights advocates had been hoping to establish same-sex marriage as a right under the state constitution. That effort ended with the state highest court's decision, issued late Thursday.
The issue of same-sex marriage remains open in Vermont, where the state Supreme Court held a hearing on a similar test case nearly 13 months ago. That court has set no deadline for a final ruling.
California's voters will go to the polls in March to act on a measure that would restrict marriage in that state to a man and a woman.
Even if a legal right to marry is established in any state, married homosexuals may encounter difficulty enforcing the legal rights of marriage in other states. Thirty states -- Maryland is not among them -- have laws barring recognition of gay marriages performed in other states. Congress has restricted federal marriage benefits to opposite-sex couples only.
Gay rights advocates indicated yesterday that they remain as hopeful about Vermont as they once were about Hawaii. But the situation in Hawaii changed markedly last year when the voters of the state amended the state constitution to give the legislature authority to ban same-sex marriage.
Although the legislature did not pass a new law after the amendment, the state Supreme Court on Thursday interpreted the 1998 constitutional amendment as having revived a 1985 law restricting valid marriage licenses to couples of the opposite sex. The amendment wiped out the court challenge to the 1985 statute.
The earlier Hawaii law had appeared to be in serious constitutional trouble, because the state Supreme Court questioned its validity in a 1993 case. Then, in 1996, a lower court judge struck it down, and the issue returned to the state Supreme Court.
In Vermont, the state marriage law does not explicitly restrict such a union to a man and a woman, although officials have asked the state's highest court to rule that it does. The state's constitution has not been changed, as was Hawaii's, to head off a court ruling opening marriage to homosexuals.
In the wake of the Hawaii ruling, gay rights advocates vowed to continue their campaign for same-sex marriage. "Our momentum in this struggle cannot be stopped," said Evan Wolfson, director of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund's marriage project.
Hawaii civil rights attorney Dan Foley, who took part in the Hawaii case on behalf of same-sex couples, said the state Supreme Court "held that its hands were tied with regard to marriage licenses" by the 1998 state constitutional amendment.
Wolfson and Foley pointed out, however, that the state Supreme Court did not overturn its 1993 ruling, and in fact made clearer on Thursday that discrimination based on sexual orientation is outlawed by the state constitution.
That will enable gay rights advocates to bring new challenges -- including claims by unmarried homosexual couples of access to legal benefits now restricted to married couples. The state court ruling, Wolfson and Foley said, only dealt with access to marriage licenses.
The Hawaii ruling drew praise from the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group that strongly opposes same-sex marriage. "Marriage is not a construct of man that can be retooled and manipulated," said Robert Knight, the council's director of cultural studies.
Marriage, he said, "is an institution established by God and protected through 6,000 years of human history. The state Supreme Court, which precipitated the crisis almost seven years ago, listened to the overwhelming opinion of the people rather than the views of a loud minority."
Among the homosexual couples who had sued to gain a right to marry in Hawaii were Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, who moved from Hawaii to Baltimore while the case was pending.
After living in Baltimore for a time, the couple moved to New York City; they are now separated. They could not be reached for comment yesterday, but one of their lawyers, Evan Wolfson, said they were disappointed.