ATLANTA -- The gay marriage movement suffered two major defeats on the state level yesterday, as Georgia's Supreme Court upheld an amendment banning gay unions and New York's highest court ruled that its state constitution does not grant same-sex couples the right to wed.
Gay marriage advocates found some solace in the ruling in New York - a state where gay marriage is currently unlawful - because it gave legislators the option of approving a same-sex marriage law in the future.
But taken together, the rulings represent a legal "valley" for the gay rights cause - especially compared with the peak of three years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws and the high court in Massachusetts upheld what has become the nation's only statewide gay marriage law, said David Buckel, the marriage project director for the gay-rights group Lamba Legal.
To opponents of gay marriage, yesterday's rulings show that they are gaining the upper hand in a patchwork of state-by-state battles over one of the nation's most contentious cultural issues. The victories were especially welcome after the U.S. Senate's failure last month to approve a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages nationwide.
In the Georgia case, the legal issue under consideration was not the right of gays to marry, but whether the 2004 amendment - approved by 76 percent of Georgia voters - violated a provision of the state constitution that ballot items cannot address more than one issue at a time.
Attorneys for Lambda Legal and others had argued that the language on the ballot appeared to ban both gay marriages and gay civil unions. The attorneys said that was unfair to voters who might be against gay marriages, but in favor of civil unions that offer some marriage-like benefits.
Georgia's Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, had threatened to call a special legislative session in August to reinstate the law if it was struck down in court. Yesterday, he released a statement affirming his pleasure with the ruling.
"The benefits of marriage, as defined by the people of Georgia, are afforded to a man and a woman," he said.
The New York court ruled 4-2 against more than 40 same-sex couples who were challenging the state's decades-old statute limiting marriage to a man and a woman. Compared with the Georgia ruling, New York's majority opinion, signed by three of the four assenting judges, offered the meatiest language to cultural conservatives.
Judge Robert S. Smith wrote that limiting marriage to heterosexual partners is not solely based on prejudice or ignorance. Because childbirth is a natural consequence of heterosexual unions, he wrote, lawmakers could find a special benefit in promoting stability in those relationships.
Moreover, he stated that children generally thrive when they grow up with both a mother and a father.
"Intuition and experience suggests that a child benefits from having before his or her eyes, every day, living models of what a man or woman are like," he wrote.
Smith rejected comparisons to miscegenation laws, which banned interracial marriage until they were struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967.
In a strong dissent, Chief Judge Judith Kaye, joined by Judge Carmen Ciparick, condemned the majority decision as a step away from New York's proud tradition of affording equal rights. Most New Yorkers, she wrote, can look back on, or forward to, their wedding as among the most significant events of their lives.
Richard Fausset and Ellen Barry write for the Los Angeles Times.