The Israeli Supreme Court touched off a fresh controversy over gay rights Tuesday when it ordered the government to register same-sex marriages performed abroad.
The ruling by a seven-judge panel, though limited in scope, reignited a debate over the rights of homosexuals in Israel after ultra-Orthodox religious leaders led protests that resulted in the cancellation of a gay pride parade this month in Jerusalem.
The 6-1 decision was praised by rights advocates as a political advance for gays and lesbians, who have won previous court decisions granting them broader rights in survivor benefits and inheritance. It also was cheered by those who support legalizing civil marriages in Israel, where only religious ceremonies are allowed.
"I am glad we won and got what we wanted to achieve in this petition, which was the basic right to be registered as married by the Israeli Ministry of Interior, just as any couple marrying abroad does and takes it for granted," Joseph Bar Lev, a 39-year-old dance instructor who was one of the petitioners, told Israel Radio.
"At the same time, this is still the beginning of the road, because the real aspiration is that civil marriage will be possible in Israel too."
The ruling did not legalize same-sex weddings in Israel, where religious authorities by law hold a monopoly on authorizing marriages and divorces.
"We hope that one day any couple who wants to marry in Israel, whether homosexual or heterosexual, will be able to do it," said Yoav Loeff, spokesman for the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel, which represented two of the five gay couples in the case.
The male couples had wed in Canada, but when they returned to Israel, the Interior Ministry refused to change their marital status from single to married.
The ministry said same-sex marriages were not legally valid in Israel and could not be listed in the government's registry. In its ruling Tuesday, the court ordered the government to register same-sex marriages that are legal abroad.
Activists said that being registered as married could help gay spouses assert the right to decide about medical care for their partners and make it easier for a spouse to gain Israeli citizenship.
Religious conservatives criticized the decision as an erosion of Israel's status as a Jewish state and said it undermined moral teachings.
Some conservatives urged the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, to examine the possible effect on Israeli society.
"This ruling is nothing short of idolatry," Zevulun Orlev, a Knesset member from the National Religious Party, said on Israel's Channel 10 television. "Only 10 days ago we read the weekly Torah portion about Sodom and Gomorrah. How exactly does this ruling reconcile with Israel being a Jewish state? What culture considers people of the same sex to be a family? Not the Jewish one."
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious leaders, joined by some Muslim and Christian clerics, protested the gay pride parade as an affront to Jerusalem's sacred standing. For days, protesters rioted, set fires in the streets and vowed to block the gathering.
In the end, parade organizers agreed to hold their rally in a stadium after police expressed concern about their ability to protect marchers. The event proceeded peacefully with a large police presence.
Secular Israelis have long complained about the broad authority wielded by the country's leading Orthodox rabbis. Many couples travel overseas to marry in civil ceremonies, a practice that has spawned a matrimonial cottage industry in the nearby island nation of Cyprus.
The issue of civil marriage is important among emigres from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are not Jewish or can't prove their heritage to the satisfaction of rabbinical authorities in Israel. Several candidates in national elections last spring promised Russian voters that they would try to make it easier for them to marry in Israel, though no reforms have been passed.
The lawyers in the same-sex marriage case cited as a precedent a Supreme Court decision from the 1960s that ordered the government to register civil marriages performed abroad, Loeff said.
Religious liberals said the ruling could help them cut into the clout held by rabbinical leaders in matters of marriage and divorce, as well as in conversions to Judaism.
Members of conservative and reform strains of Judaism have sought for years to have non-Orthodox conversions recognized by Israel's top rabbis.
Although the groups have made inroads in getting official recognition for non-Orthodox conversions done abroad, they are awaiting a court ruling on similar recognition for conversions carried out in Israel.
"The Supreme Court of Israel is the grand hope all liberal Jews have" to check the power of the Orthodox leaders, said Anat Hoffman, a former member of the Jerusalem City Council who directs the Israel Religious Action Center, which advocates religious pluralism in Israel.
Hoffman campaigned in support of the gay pride parade, and said she was appalled by the tone of the protests by religious leaders from all three major faiths.
She said the court's ruling simply recognized the legality of same-sex marriages granted by countries that allowed them.
"If the Canadians recognize these people as a family," Hoffman said, "we can't turn around and say that Israel, as a member of the family of nations, does not."