A lesbian couple who were legally married in Canada lost a landmark lawsuit on Thursday aimed at winning the same legal rights as married heterosexuals in Ireland.

Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone — who were married in Vancouver, British Columbia, in September 2003 — were the first homosexual couple in Ireland to go to court to seek state recognition of a foreign marriage.

In a 182-page judgment, High Court Justice Elizabeth Dunne said Ireland's 1937 constitution did not permit recognition of same-sex unions and committed the state "to guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack."

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Dunne said it was up to lawmakers and the electorate to decide whether to amend the constitution and confer full property, tax and inheritance rights to gay couples as well as on unmarried heterosexual couples in long-term relationships.

"It is to be hoped that the legislators will deal with ... the undoubted hardship caused to people in relationships of cohabitation sooner rather than later," she said.

The case was closely watched in this predominantly Roman Catholic country of 4.2 million, where homosexuality was illegal until 1993.

Gilligan and Zappone said they were disappointed with the judgment but needed to read the judgment in detail before deciding whether to appeal to the Supreme Court, Ireland's ultimate arbiter on constitutional matters.

"We do believe, and we know, that Ireland will be a land of justice and of equality for all human beings, and we believe, and we know, that the Irish constitution does protect our rights as it does all others," said Zappone, who is a member of Ireland's government-appointed Human Rights Commission, an advisory body.

Gilligan, a Dublin college lecturer in philosophy, is Irish and a former Catholic nun. Zappone is an American from Seattle, Washington. They have been a couple since the early 1980s.

Their action followed a similar case in Britain, where a lesbian couple unsuccessfully sued in July 2005 to have their marriage — also attained in Vancouver in 2003 — recognized under British law. Britain, unlike Ireland, already accords marriage-style rights to homosexual couples who register their commitment in legally binding "civil partnerships."

Denmark in 1989 became the first country to legislate for same-sex partnerships. Other European Union members have followed suit: Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

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