New York State judge in Manhattan ruled yesterday that a state law that effectively denied gay couples the right to marry violated the state Constitution, a decision that raised the possibility that the city would begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples as soon as next month.
The ruling, by Justice Doris Ling-Cohan, was the first on the state level to side with proponents of gay marriage. In her 62-page decision, she wrote that the state's Domestic Relations Law, which dates to 1909 and limits marriage to unions between opposite-sex couples, deprived gay couples of equal protection and due process rights under the state Constitution.
She likened the law to those that once barred interracial marriages and said that words currently used in defining legal marriages - husband and wife, groom and bride - "shall be construed to apply equally to either men or women."
The issue of gay marriage has roiled the country, and it became a factor in the presidential race last fall as voters in numerous states enacted ballot initiatives limiting marriages to heterosexual couples. Just this week, President Bush, in his State of the Union speech, once again embraced a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
In Massachusetts, the high state court has said that gay marriage is compelled under the Constitution, and couples have been marrying by the thousands. In San Francisco, the mayor issued licenses, but the state's high court ruled that the mayor did not have authority to issue the licenses.
And so the implications of the New York judge's ruling yesterday are far from settled. The ruling applies only to New York City, and in a number of cases in other counties across the state, judges have upheld the state's marriage laws. As a result, many lawyers, as well as state and city officials, expect that the question will eventually have to be settled by the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals.
Most immediately, though, the city, which was named as the defendant in the lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal on behalf of five New York City couples, has to decide whether to appeal yesterday's ruling. A lawyer for the city yesterday said simply that he was studying the ruling and considering options.
But legal experts say that, according to the ruling, if the city does not appeal within 30 days, the city clerk's office would be required to issue a license to any gay couple that applies, something gay couples across the city and state have been seeking for years. And in her ruling, Justice Ling-Cohan all but ordered the city clerk to do so.
"It's about time it came about," said Bettina D. Hindin, an expert in matrimonial law at the Manhattan-based firm Slade & Newman. "It knocks the stuffing out of anyone who would say that couples should not marry because of some draconian law from the early 20th century."
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican, stayed silent on the issue yesterday. In the past, Mr. Bloomberg has supported overhauling state law to allow gay marriage. He is likely to be all the more sensitive now, as he seeks re-election in a city with a powerful gay vote.
Mr. Bloomberg's political rivals wasted no time in expressing their opinions. Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president, and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, both Democrats, put out statements last night calling upon the mayor to support the decision. At the same time, the mayor is also facing two potential Republican primary challengers who would surely use his support for the ruling against him with more conservative voters.
One city official said yesterday that the decision on whether to appeal yesterday's ruling might depend in part on whether city lawyers concluded that they were professionally bound to challenge a decision that set a different standard for New York City than for other counties.
To forgo an appeal could, at least temporarily, "turn New York City into a gay marriage Mecca," said one city official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
One of the many open questions is whether others, such as religious groups or conservative organizations, could seek to short-circuit the ruling or file lawsuits themselves in an attempt to have the state's higher courts take up the issue. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office said through a spokeswoman that it would not intercede, asserting that the ruling pertained solely to New York City.
Mr. Spitzer's office issued an opinion last year that said state law did not allow gay marriage, after a mayor in New Paltz, a village in upstate New York, began marrying gay couples without licenses. But the office indicated that the question could only be settled by the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, and several legal experts interviewed yesterday agreed.
"Sooner or later, a case raising the exact same issue is going to get to the Court of Appeals and whatever it rules will be the final word," said Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School and an expert on the Court of Appeals. "It will make no difference what anyone else has said about it. If the Court of Appeals rules no, that's the end of it."
The court is already being asked to consider an appeal for another gay marriage case - Samuels v. New York State Department of Health - with almost identical issues, he said. In that case, a lower court judge rejected efforts to challenge the state's marriage laws.
At least three other state judges have ruled against gay marriage proponents, most recently on Thursday in Ulster County. In that ruling, State Supreme Court Justice E. Michael Kavanagh ruled it was proper to deny two couples married by an Albany minister licenses, because state law limited marriage to opposite-sex couples.
Gov. George E. Pataki echoed that opinion yesterday. He said, through aides, that he opposed the ruling. A spokesman would not comment when asked whether Mr. Pataki could intercede in any way.
"The governor strongly believes that the judge's decision is wrong," said Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for Mr. Pataki. "New York's marriage laws are clear that marriage is between a man and a woman and any changes to our laws should be made through the legislative process, not by a judge or local officials."
Yesterday's ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed last March by five gay couples, all of whom had been denied marriage licenses. The judge reasoned that the government had no legitimate reason to prohibit same-sex marriage, and that doing so violated the basic right to choose a partner. Developments in New York law, she said, make discrimination based on sexual orientation unacceptable.
"Similar to opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples are entitled to the same fundamental right to follow their hearts and publicly commit to a lifetime partnership with the person of their choosing," Justice Ling-Cohan wrote.
She concluded that, "marriage is viewed by society as the utmost expression of a couple's commitment and love; plaintiffs may now seek this ultimate expression through a civil marriage."
At a news conference in the Lambda Legal offices in downtown Manhattan, the couples reacted joyously.
"We're getting hitched," said Curtis Woolbright, a plaintiff who said he had taken part in the suit because his parents, a biracial couple, had to fight to get married. They moved to California in the 1960's, one of the few states to allow biracial marriage at the time.
"We're so excited about this we can't express it," Mr. Woolbright said.
Another couple, Mary Jo Kennedy and Jo-Ann Shain, said it was their 16-year-old daughter, Aliya Shain, who convinced them to seek a marriage license and join the suit. Aliya, smiling into the blaze of camera flashes and television crews, said she was proud of her parents. The family lives in Brooklyn, and Aliya, who had skipped physics class to attend the event, said that her friends at school were supportive and that she hoped the rest of the country would be as well.
When asked about Mr. Bush's speech, she said, "I would invite the president to spend a day in my home because I think that would greatly change his mind."
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