A Baltimore Circuit Court judge sided with nine gay couples yesterday, ruling that Maryland's law defining marriage as being between a man and a woman violates the state's Constitution.
It is the latest decision in an intense national debate over the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry. The ruling, however, will not allow gay couples to become immediately eligible for marriage licenses. Judge M. Brooke Murdock stayed the order pending an appeal, which was immediately filed by the state attorney general's office.
Murdock's decision spoke directly to what some would call the moral debate over gay marriage.
"Although tradition and societal values are important, they cannot be given so much weight that they alone will justify a discriminatory statutory classification," the decision states. "When tradition is the guise under which prejudice or animosity hides, it is not a legitimate state interest."
Advocates applauded the ruling, saying it takes them "one step closer to ensuring that the right of equal protection applies to everyone."
"This is one of the fundamental issues of fairness facing our society," said David Rocah, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which is representing the plaintiffs. "To have the court vindicate what we believed and argued is a wonderful feeling,"
But opponents of gay marriage quickly geared up to fight the judge's decision in the legislature and in voting booths, saying they would pursue a constitutional amendment.
"It's a sad day for the state of Maryland," said Del. Don Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican and leading gay-marriage opponent in the House. "I assure you the majority of Maryland citizens do not agree with this court's decision."
Nine Maryland couples and one individual filed the lawsuit in Baltimore in July 2004, contending that the state's 1973 marriage law is unconstitutional.
Using a strategy successful in Massachusetts - the only state where same-sex marriage is legal - the plaintiffs requested marriage licenses from local court clerks, and they filed suit after being denied. The lawsuit names City Clerk Frank Conaway and the clerks of Dorchester, Prince George's, St. Mary's and Washington counties.
"We're just amazed," said Lisa Polyak, 44; she and her partner, Gitanjali Deane, 43, are the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "We are relieved that finally the court took us seriously, that they recognize us as a legitimate family that needs protection under the law and is entitled to it."
But some plaintiffs remained cautious out of concern that opponents might gain momentum in their push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Indeed, lawmakers who have pushed the General Assembly for years to pass such a ban said in interviews yesterday that they would move quickly to try again. "Legislative action will be taken," said Dwyer. "I will fight to the end on this."
As states nationwide wrestle with the issue of gay rights, same-sex marriage supporters and opponents are watching the Maryland case closely.
Maryland is one of at least six states - the others are Washington, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California - with pending legal challenges. An additional 13 states have adopted constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage, 11 of which came in the form of ballot referendums during the 2004 election.
National opponents of gay marriage said yesterday that while they disagreed with the Maryland ruling, it offered a "silver lining": the possibility of a constitutional amendment.
"Some legislators have said it was unnecessary because we already have a 1973 law that defines marriage," said Peter Sprigg, vice president of public policy for the Family Research Council, which opposes gay marriage. "But we now know that at least one judge is perfectly willing to overturn that law. The only way to protect marriage is through a constitutional amendment."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he was dismayed and disappointed by the court's decision but stopped short of endorsing a constitutional amendment, saying he planned to wait for a ruling by a Maryland appeals court.
"I am going to employ the appropriate remedy to protect marriage in the state of Maryland," Ehrlich said.
Polyak argued that altering the Constitution to forbid same-sex marriage would only harm families such as hers. Polyak and Deane have two daughters, ages 9 and 6, and say that, without marriage, they are not guaranteed each other's health insurance. If one of them were to die, the partner would not receive benefits - such as Social Security - and that would leave their children in a precarious position, Polyak said.
"How is that in the public interest for the citizens of Maryland? Who does that help?" she said of a constitutional amendment. "I can clearly state the way that it harms. What public policy goal are they advancing by discriminating against a group of people?"