WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search) on Monday rejected a challenge to the only state that allows gay marriages, declining to hear an appeal aimed at overturning the Massachusetts law that prompted a national debate on the legality and morality of same-sex unions (search).
The decision ended the legal fight over a 4-3 Massachusetts high court ruling last November giving gay couples the right to marry. But both sides say the U.S. Supreme Court's unwillingness to intervene means there will be more fights in courts and legislatures around the country.
President Bush (search) has promised to make passage of an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment a priority in his second term.
"Activist judges are seeking to redefine marriage for the rest of society, and the people's voice is not being heard in this process," said presidential spokesman Scott McClellan. "That's why the president is committed to moving forward with Congress on a constitutional amendment that would protect the sanctity of marriage."
Lambda and other gay-rights groups were heartened that the Supreme Court let the ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court stand. In the past year, at least 3,000 gay Massachusetts couples have wed.
"The bottom line is nobody is being harmed by the Massachusetts state law treating all couples equally," said David Buckel, Lambda's legal marriage project director.
Lambda currently is suing in four states — California, New Jersey, New York and Washington — on behalf of same-sex couples seeking marriage.
Liberty Counsel, the Florida-based conservative group that filed the challenge to the Massachusetts law, argued the state Supreme Court ruling violated the U.S. Constitution because state judges had made a decision more properly decided by elected legislatures.
The high court rejected the appeal without comment.
Liberty Counsel is continuing the fight elsewhere, lobbying more than two dozen states to pass state amendments banning gay marriages.
"We will see legal battles around marriage hashed out in state courts, state legislatures and in state referenda," said Chai Feldblum, a civil rights law professor at Georgetown University.
Gay marriage is opposed by a majority of Americans, according to an AP-Ipsos poll. The poll taken Nov. 19-21 found that 61 percent oppose gay marriage and 35 percent support it.
People are about evenly divided on whether gays should be allowed to form civil unions, which would give them many of the same legal rights as marriage, other polls have found.
Earlier this month, anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives passed in all 11 states that had them.
Massachusetts voters may have a chance next year to change the state constitution to bar gay marriages but allow same-sex couples to form civil unions that make them eligible for the same benefits as married couples.
Legal analysts said the Supreme Court's decision to stay out of the battle wasn't surprising, because the lawsuit made a rarely used claim that activist Massachusetts judges had violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of a republican form of government.
Legal challenges elsewhere in state and federal courts — including whether other states must recognize Massachusetts' gay marriages — are likely as the nation grapples with the issue, said Charles Fried, a Harvard law professor who sat on the Massachusetts high court from 1995-99.
C.J. Doyle, executive director of the anti-gay marriage Catholic Action League, called the Supreme Court decision "one skirmish, one battle in a much larger issue."
Liberty Counsel filed the lawsuit on behalf of Robert Largess, the vice president of the Catholic Action League, and 11 state lawmakers. The group had persuaded the Supreme Court in October to consider another high profile issue, the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on government property.
Last May, the Supreme Court refused to intervene and block Massachusetts clerks from issuing the first marriage licenses.
The case is Largess v. Supreme Judicial Court of the State of Massachusetts, 04-420.