BRUSSELS -- European nations do not have to allow same-sex marriage, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled, though gay rights groups claimed a partial victory Friday because the court acknowledged growing agreement that their relationships should be recognized in law.

Seven judges at the European court ruled unanimously that two Austrian men denied permission to wed were not covered by the guarantee of the right to marry enshrined in Europe's human rights convention.

The judges acknowledged "an emerging European consensus" that same-sex couples should have legal recognition but said individual states may still decide what form it should take because marriage had "deep-rooted social and cultural connotations which may differ largely from one society to another."

The European Union's 27 member states range from socially liberal countries like Sweden and the Netherlands to religious, conservative nations such as Poland.

Six EU states -- Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, Norway and Spain -- have legalized gay marriage. About a dozen others, including Britain, Germany, France and -- since January -- Austria, have legal partnerships, which carry much the same status as marriage.

Horst Schalk and Johann Kopf sought a marriage permit in Vienna in 2002, but were turned down because Austrian law only recognizes marriages between a man and a woman. They took their case to the courts in a battle that made its way through the Austrian system before being referred to the European court in Strasbourg, France.

Despite Thursday's ruling, there was little to cheer opponents of gay marriage. The judges noted that the European rights charter was drawn up in 1950, when "marriage was clearly understood in the traditional sense of being a union between partners of different sex." They said that was lo longer automatically the case.

"The Court would no longer consider that the right to marry ... must in all circumstances be limited to marriage between two persons of the opposite sex," the judges said.

Legal experts said the European Court ruling would not have a significant impact.

"It just means that questions of marriage are within the margin of discretion of particular states," said British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. "Each state is entitled to have its own marriage law. I don't think it will have many implications here or elsewhere."

Gay rights groups applauded the finding that marriage must not necessarily be limited to people of the opposite sex, along with the court's ruling that gay couples are covered under charter definitions of family life.

The European section of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association said the court had recognized "a rapid evolution of social attitudes toward same-sex couples."

"As more and more countries provide legal recognition for same-sex partners, Europe as a whole is gradually moving towards full equality for same-sex families," said spokesman Martin K.I. Christensen.
Derek Munn, Director of Public Affairs for British gay rights group Stonewall, said he was "pleased that the court has recognized same-sex relationships for the purposes of article 8 of the (convention) -- the right to family life."

"It is to be hoped that Austria will follow Britain in including full parenting rights in its civil partnerships," he said.

Same-sex couples in Austria cannot adopt children.

HOSI, Austria's gay and lesbian advocacy organization, said it was not surprised by the ruling because a finding against the Austrian government would have set a precedent with far-reaching implications for European states.

Spokesman Kurt Krickler said the decision "makes clear that international human rights bodies are not ready to set the way for developments in society and that legal progress for lesbians and gays has to primarily be fought for in the political arena."

The court's rulings are binding on members of the 47-nation Council of Europe, which have signed up to the human rights convention.