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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 February, 2004, 20:56 GMT
US state court says gays can wed
Gina Smith and Heidi Norton [left] with Gloria Bailey and Linda Davis, two of the seven couples involved in the legal proceedings
The issue came to court after seven gay couples filed a lawsuit
The supreme court in Massachusetts has ruled that same-sex couples must be given equal marriage rights in the north-eastern American state.

It bolsters a ruling by the same court that gay couples have a constitutional right to full marriage rights, not just those conferred by a civil union.

That first ruling set off a firestorm of controversy in the US.

It led the White House to promise to defend what it calls the "sanctity of marriage".

The BBC's Jane Standley in New York says the Massachusetts decision is a highly significant milestone and comes in a year which has seen more legal recognition for gay rights in the United States and in its neighbour, Canada.

But the ruling came a day after the legislature in the state of Ohio gave final approval to one of the most sweeping bans on same-sex unions in the country.

This makes Ohio the 38th state to prohibit the unions.

But the law there goes further by barring state agencies from giving benefits to non-married couples irrespective of orientation.

Initial ruling vague

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its ruling in response to a request from the state senate about how it must fulfil its new legal obligations to same sex couples wanting to get married.

"The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal," the four justices who ruled in favour of gay marriage wrote in the response.

The initial ruling by the court in November, prompted by a lawsuit by seven gay couples who were refused marriage licences, had been vague in its wording.

Activists on either side of the debate argued that it did not make clear if a civil union - which confers many of the same rights as marriage but not the title - would suffice.

Now it is clear that it will not - marriage means marriage, and the state legislature has six months to change the law to make it happen.

Analysts say that the first same-sex ceremonies in Massachusetts could take place as early as May.

The initial ruling was immediately denounced by President George W Bush, who promised to pursue legislation to protect the traditional definition of marriage as being between couples of different sexes.

He reiterated the point in his State of the Union address two weeks ago, prompting speculation that he will introduce an amendment to the constitution to essentially override the Massachusetts ruling.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Sean De Vries
"A threat to the traditional definition of marriage"



SEE ALSO:
Massachusetts backs gay marriage
18 Nov 03  |  Americas
America's marital rows
16 Oct 03  |  Americas
Proud bishop makes history
06 Aug 03  |  Americas
US court overturns gay sex ban
26 Jun 03  |  Americas
NY Times to announce gay unions
18 Aug 02  |  Americas
Vermont's gays win parity
26 Apr 00  |  Americas


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