Boston The Massachusetts high court declared Wednesday that gays are entitled to nothing less than marriage and that Vermont-style civil unions will not suffice.
The court issued the opinion at the request of legislators who wanted to know whether civil unions would be enough to satisfy the court after its November ruling that said gay couples are entitled to all the rights of marriage. That decision had been written in such a way that it left open the possibility that civil unions might be allowed.
But Wednesday's opinion by the Supreme Judicial Court left no doubt: Only marriage would pass constitutional muster.
"The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal," four justices wrote. "For no rational reason the marriage laws of the commonwealth discriminate against a defined class; no amount of tinkering with language will eradicate that stain. The (civil unions) bill would have the effect of maintaining and fostering a stigma of exclusion that the Constitution prohibits."
Paul Martinek, editor of Lawyers Weekly USA, said that the blunt opinion erased any confusion.
"The fat lady has sung and she's singing the wedding march," Martinek said. "It's clear from reading the majority opinion that there's no basis on which the (court) will OK anything other than marriage."
In Kansas, as across the nation, the ruling was hailed by some and condemned by others.
Zach Straus a junior at Kansas University in Lawrence, would like to see Kansas take similar action to legitimize same-sex marriages. Straus, who is gay, said he would marry a same-sex partner.
"Although it would be legitimate to me, this would put it on equal status with heterosexual marriages and maybe help the public come to terms with it," Straus said.
Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline said he favored a constitutional amendment that would specify that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Because of Wednesday's ruling, Kline said he expected a gay couple in Kansas would go to Massachusetts to get married, and return to Kansas to test Kansas law. But he said that a same-sex marriage would not be recognized in Kansas, where current state law says marriage is between a man and a woman.
Ultimately, the issue will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
"That's where this is headed," he said.
Straus said he would be willing to go to Massachusetts to get married if the benefits of it would transfer to Kansas.
As a sign of things to come, President Bush denounced the Massachusetts ruling Wednesday.
"Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman," Bush said. "If activist judges insist on redefining marriage by court order, the only alternative will be the constitutional process. We must do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage."
Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. John Kerry said in a statement that he supported civil unions but disagreed with the court decision in his home state.
The Massachusetts court's much-anticipated opinion came a week before next Wednesday's Constitutional Convention, where the Legislature will consider an amendment backed by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
But the soonest a constitutional amendment could end up on the ballot would be 2006, meaning that until then, the high court's decision will be Massachusetts law. Gay couples could get married in Massachusetts as soon as May, the deadline set by the court last fall.
"We're going to have to start looking for a band," said Ed Balmelli, who put down a deposit for a wedding after the opinion.
The case represents a significant milestone in a year that has seen broad new recognitions of gay rights in America, Canada and abroad, including a June U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Texas ban on gay sex.
The White House called the Massachusetts ruling "deeply troubling."
"Activist judges continue to seek to redefine marriage by court order without regard for the will of the people," said presidential spokesman Scott McClellan.
The legal battle in Massachusetts began in 2001, when seven gay couples went to their city and town halls to obtain marriage licenses. All were denied, leading them to sue the state.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry, and gave the Legislature six months to change state laws to make it happen.
The state Senate then asked for more guidance from the court.
At least one aspect of the case may still be subject to debate: Would marriages in Massachusetts have to be recognized in other states?
Conservative leaders said they would redouble their efforts to pass the constitutional ban on same-sex marriages.
"This now puts the pressure back on the Legislature to do their job to protect and defend marriage for the citizens of the state to allow them to vote," said Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.