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.
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.
High courts in Washington state and New Jersey are deliberating cases in which same-sex couples argue they have the right to marry. A handful of other states have cases moving through lower courts.
Forty-five states have specifically barred same-sex marriage through statutes or constitutional amendments. Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay marriage, although Vermont and Connecticut allow same-sex civil unions that confer the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples.
The New York court said any change in the state's law should come from the state Legislature, Judge Robert Smith wrote. The decision said lawmakers have a legitimate interest in protecting children by limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. It went on to say the law does not deny homosexual couples any "fundamental right" since same-sex marriages are not "deeply rooted in the nation's history and tradition."
"There's no question they looked to New York as a place where they could win," said Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group based in Florida. "It would have been a major victory for them. Instead it's a stunning defeat for the same-sex marriage movement."