WASHINGTON – Hours after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled a state ban on gay marriages is unconstitutional, presidential candidates and lawmakers on Tuesday expressed their reservations about a law allowing same-sex marriages.
Still, Democrats on the campaign trail said they would support measures to give gay couples similar legal rights to those enjoyed by heterosexual couples.
"The state should afford same-sex couples equal treatment under law in areas such as health insurance, hospital visitation and inheritance rights," said Howard Dean, who as governor of Vermont signed the first law allowing civil unions, which offers equal treatment for same-sex couples without calling it marriage.
"As a society we should be looking for ways to bring us together and, as someone who supports the legal rights of all Americans regardless of sexual orientation, I appreciate today's decision," said Wesley Clark. "As president, I would support giving gays and lesbians the legal rights that married couples get."
Following decisions in Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont, the Massachusetts high court ruled Tuesday that same-sex couples are legally entitled to wed under the state Constitution, but it stopped short of immediately allowing marriage licenses to be issued to the couples who challenged the law.
Massachusetts may not "deny the protections, benefits and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry," the court ruled, according to a posting on its Web site.
The court is giving the Legislature 180 days to "take such action as it may deem appropriate in light of this decision," which means the decision will not take affect until then.
The Massachusetts Legislature had already been considering a constitutional amendment that would legally define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
State Speaker of the House Tom Finneran (search) of Boston had endorsed a defense of marriage act, and the Legislature last year defeated a gay marriage initiative.
"If there is huge public outcry about this and the public says, 'Look, let's amend the Constitution so this decision never takes effect,' then the Legislature can do this. I don't think they will," Wendy Murphy, a former sex crimes prosecutor and victims advocate, told Fox News.
On the campaign trail last fall, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (search) said he would veto gay-marriage legislation.
"Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman. I will support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that makes that expressly clear. Of course, we must provide basic civil rights and appropriate benefits to nontraditional couples, but marriage is a special institution that should be reserved for a man and a woman," the Republican governor said in a statement Tuesday.
Currently, 37 states have "defense of marriage" amendments to their constitutions, specifically defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
In 1996, President Clinton signed into law a federal Defense of Marriage Act (search). Following Tuesday's ruling, some Republican members of Congress said they would seek a federal constitutional amendment to strengthen that law.
This bill provides a further push for Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has pushed for the amendment in the Senate.
The ruling is "just one more assault on the Judeo-Christian values of our nation," added Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.
An amendment to the Constitution would require two-thirds support from both chambers, the president's signature and ratification by three-quarters of the states, which seems possible considering the number of state constitutional amendments on the books.
President Bush suggested Tuesday that he could support such a plan.
"Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. Today's decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court violates this important principle. I will work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage," Bush said in a statement while traveling to London for a three-day visit.
But congressional action this year on any legislation is highly unlikely. Lawmakers are looking to adjourn this year's session by Thanksgiving, and House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R- Wis., probably wouldn't call a hearing on the proposed constitutional amendment or other gay marriage legislation in his committee this year.
On the campaign trail, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, another Democratic presidential candidate, warned against trying to pass a constitutional amendment.
"It is my hope that we don't get sidetracked by the right wing into a debate over a phony constitutional amendment banning gay marriage," said Gephardt, whose daughter is gay. "I strongly oppose such an effort as purely political and unnecessarily divisive at the expense of those who already suffer from discrimination."
However, Gephardt, along with candidates Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and John Edwards issued statements Tuesday restating their opposition to gay marriage. Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, said the decision calls on the legislature in his state "to take action to ensure equal protection for gay couples." He avoided specifying what that action should be.
Only three candidates — Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun — said they would support laws that allowing same-sex couples to wed.
"Separate is not equal," Kucinich, a Ohio representative in Congress, said. "The right to marry is a civil right that should not be denied."
Fox News Alisyn Camerota and The Associated Press contributed to this report.