Seven gay couples went to court Tuesday to ask a judge to force the state of Massachusetts to issue them marriage licenses.

The same couples filed suit last year to try to force the state to recognize same-sex marriages and give gay couples the same marriage rights as traditional married couples.

During a hearing in Suffolk Superior Court, attorney Jennifer Levi argued that denying civil marriage to gay and lesbian couples violates their right to equal treatment based on sexual orientation.

"The right to marry is fairly meaningless if it doesn't include the right to marry the person you fall in love with," Levi said.

But Assistant Attorney General Judith Yogman, arguing for the state, said the issue of gay marriage should be left to the state Legislature, not the courts.

Yogman said gay marriages would strain state resources, employers and insurance companies because gay married couples would be entitled to the same financial benefits as traditional married couples.

"All of those benefits cost money," she said.

Judge Thomas Connolly took the case under advisement and did not immediately issue a ruling.

Gary Chalmers and Richard Linnell, one of the couples suing the state, said having a state-recognized marriage would make a statement to their family and friends, and would also ensure that their 9-year-old adopted daughter has the same rights as a child from a traditional marriage.

Chalmers, 36, a 5th-grade teacher, and Linnell, 38, a clinical nurse educator, have been together for 14 years.

"We live day-to-day normal lives, just like anybody else," said Linnell.

"We are the average American family — the difference being two men instead of one male and one female as head of household," said Chalmers. "We pay our taxes, we're involved in our community, we go to church."

Levi, senior staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, told the judge that the couples who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit have been together for between 5 years and 30 years. Four out of the seven couples are raising children together.

Currently, Vermont is the only state that recognizes same-sex unions and gives gay married couples the same legal rights of traditional married couples.

The issue of gay marriage has been hotly debated in Massachusetts.

On Monday, House Ways and Means Chairman John Rogers, D-Norwood, said he is backing away from a bill he filed last year to ban same-sex marriages.

The bill would have defined marriage in Massachusetts as "a legal relationship between one man and one woman" and deny the legal benefits of marriage to any other type of relationship.

House Speaker Thomas Finneran has said he supported the bill. Acting Gov. Jane Swift has said she would veto any bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

A group opposed to gay marriage has collected enough signatures to put a question on the 2004 ballot to change the state constitution to define marriage in Massachusetts as a union between one man and one woman.

Gay activists call the question unconstitutional because it would deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.