NEW YORK, Feb. 4 -- Comparing prohibitions on same-sex marriage to once-common laws against interracial marriage, a trial court judge in Manhattan ruled Friday that same-sex couples have a right to wed under the state constitution.
Judge Doris Ling-Cohan found in favor of five couples who had sued the city clerk for denying them marriage licenses. But she stayed the decision for 30 days to allow an appeal, which means that same-sex couples will not immediately be able to marry in New York City, the only jurisdiction directly affected by the ruling.
Noting that state laws against interracial marriage remained common into the 1960s, Ling-Cohan wrote that "the fundamental right to marry the person of one's choice may not be denied based on longstanding and deeply held traditional beliefs about appropriate marital partners."
Lambda Legal, the gay rights group that brought the lawsuit, hailed the decision as "historic, well-reasoned and fair." Opponents of same-sex marriage called it an example of judicial overreaching and predicted that it would add momentum to their efforts, in New York and nationally, to pass constitutional amendments defining marriage as only the union of a man and a woman.
"This speaks to the need for a marriage protection amendment to put an end to these judicial fire drills by aberrant judges," said Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, who contended that the analogy to interracial marriage is flawed. In the case of a mixed-race couple, he said, "you had two people who met the qualification of marriage, because they were a man and a woman. You weren't changing the definition of the institution."
The case was brought in the state Supreme Court for New York County, which despite its name is an entry-level trial court. Trial court judges in Albany and Rockland County ruled against same-sex couples in similar cases last year.
"There have been three sets of virtually identical facts and arguments, and two diametrically opposed outcomes" in New York state courts, said Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, a conservative public interest law group in Orlando that filed an amicus brief against same-sex marriage.
Elsewhere, state supreme courts in Vermont and Massachusetts have ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to form legally recognized relationships, though only in Massachusetts are they called marriages.
In Washington state, two trial courts ruled last year in favor of same-sex marriage, and the state's highest court is scheduled to hear an appeal of those rulings on March 8. In Oregon, a lower court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage was followed by the passage of a state constitutional amendment barring it.
Social conservatives see this legal patchwork as evidence that judges are writing their personal views into law. "It only takes one judge to undo all of the hard work that has been done to protect marriage on the state level," said Gary Cass, executive director of the Florida-based Center for Reclaiming America.
But Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group working for equality for same-sex couples, said it is a natural phase as the nation deals with old prejudices. "The key to ending discrimination is giving fair-minded people enough time and information about the real impact of discrimination for them to open their hearts and minds," he said.
In the first paragraph of her 62-page ruling, Ling-Cohan noted that one of the plaintiffs, Curtis Woolbright, is the child of an interracial couple who moved from Texas to California to marry in 1966, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws.
"Similar to opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples are entitled to the same fundamental right to follow their hearts and publicly commit to a lifetime partnership with the person of their choosing. The recognition that this fundamental right applies equally to same-sex couples cannot legitimately be said to harm anyone," she wrote.
"We're getting hitched!" Woolbright, 37, cried after the decision was announced, turning to his partner, Daniel Reyes. His parents "jumped into the Volkswagen and went cross country to get married," but he is hoping for an intimate wedding close to home, he said.
Cooperman reported from Washington.