The Supreme Judicial Court ruling makes Massachusetts the first state to grant the full rights of marriage to gay and lesbian couples. In clear and forthright terms, the court declared that civil unions or other marriage-like institutions would not meet the state's constitutional standards.
"The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal," the court ruled. Three of the seven justices dissented.
The landmark ruling comes as states across the country are considering constitutional amendments to keep gays from marrying and are passing statutes to protect the union between a man and a woman.
The issue is likely to be troublesome for Democrats in this year's presidential race. The current front-runner, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, long has opposed gay marriage but advocates full legal protection for same-sex couples. The controversy may remind conservative voters that he comes from a liberal state. Kerry did not comment on the court's action.
Wednesday's ruling affirmed the court's November decision granting seven same-sex couples the right to marry -- and extending that privilege to all gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts. The court gave the Legislature six months to establish a law for same-sex marriage.
The justices were firm in responding to a request by the Legislature that the court approve civil unions instead of marriage for homosexual couples.
"The very nature and purpose of civil marriage," the justices said Wednesday, "renders unconstitutional any attempt to ban all same-sex couples ... from entering into civil marriage."
Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Tom Reilly said the meaning of the court's ruling was indisputable. "Same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry under Massachusetts law," he said.
Next week, state legislators plan to convene a rare constitutional convention to consider pursuing an amendment that would limit marriage to heterosexual couples.
Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican who has voiced strong opposition to gay marriage, said Wednesday that he welcomed the opportunity to take the issue to Beacon Hill.
"We've heard from the court, but not from the people," Romney said. "The people of Massachusetts should not be excluded from a decision as fundamental to our society as the definition of marriage."
Calling the issue "too important to leave to a one-vote [court] majority," the governor added, "that is why it's imperative that we proceed with the legitimate process of amending our state constitution."
State Senate President Robert Travaglini, however, urged all parties to "stay in an objective and calm state as we plan and define [how] ... to proceed." The Democrat called the court's opinion straightforward, but added: "What is not so readily apparent is how this legal opinion now figures into the very personal decision each lawmaker must face."
If an amendment passes the Legislature, voters still would have to ratify it, a process that could not take place before 2006. In the interim, the Supreme Judicial Court decision would stand.
Thirty-eight states so far -- including California -- have enacted "defense of marriage" statutes that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. President Clinton signed the federal Defense of Marriage act in 1996.
Amendments banning gay marriage already are under consideration in Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia, Idaho, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Utah, Kentucky, Alabama and Indiana.
The Ohio Legislature on Tuesday approved one of the country's broadest bans on same-sex marriage, prohibiting state agencies from extending benefits to gay and lesbian domestic partners and barring the state from recognizing civil unions granted elsewhere. Gov. Robert A. Taft, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill next week.
In Iowa -- where the state Supreme Court is reviewing a controversial divorce decree granted to a lesbian couple -- foes of same-sex marriage vowed Wednesday to prevent their state from becoming the next Massachusetts.