Hawaii's Supreme Court has slammed the door on gay marriages in the state once considered most likely to legalize same-sex unions. That means Vermont could be gay couples' best hope.

In a ruling Thursday, Hawaii's high court said the issue was resolved by a 1998 amendment to the state constitution against gay marriages.

Vermont is the only state whose top court is considering the issue. The Vermont Supreme Court is expected to rule any day on a case filed by three gay couples who want the right to marry.

Opponents of gay marriage cheered the ruling in Hawaii.

"Thank you to the Hawaii Supreme Court for affirming what we've known all along--that marriage, by God's definition, is between opposite-sex couples," said Mike Gabbard, chairman of the Alliance for Traditional Marriage.

The Hawaii ruling was a loss for three other gay couples who want to marry and who sued the state in 1990.

"We have such wimps in our judicial system," said Joseph Melillo, who wants to marry his partner of 23 years.

Other advocates of same-sex marriage said the issue will not go away.

"This is still a national civil rights movement and no one victory and no one defeat is going to end our advance on equality," said Evan Wolfson, an attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay rights organization in New York. "The public continues to discuss and get used to the idea of gay people marrying. No doubt we will win the freedom to marry. The only question is when."

It was the Hawaii case that brought the debate over gay marriages into the open.

In 1993, Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled that the state's failure to recognize gay marriages amounted to gender discrimination.

The ruling set off preemptive legislating around the nation. Lawmakers feared that gay couples would fly to Hawaii to get married and that the 49 other states would then have to recognize those marriages.

At least 30 states banned gay marriages, and Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of homosexual marriage and allowed states to ignore same-sex unions licensed elsewhere.

Something similar happened in Hawaii. In 1994, lawmakers said marriage can only be a union of a man and a woman and later drafted a constitutional amendment giving them the authority to pass such a ban. Voters approved the amendment 2-1 last year.

"Contrary to pro-homosexuality activists' rhetoric, marriage is not a construct of man that can be retooled and manipulated, but an institution established by God and protected through 6,000 years of human history," said Robert Knight of the Family Research Council in Washington.

The Hawaii ruling has no direct bearing on the Vermont case because it was based on Hawaiian law and the Hawaiian Constitution.

In Vermont, three couples sued for the right to marry in 1997, but a Superior Court judge dismissed the case, ruling that there is no fundamental right to gay marriage. The couples appealed.

Hawaii's five Supreme Court justices left alone their 1993 ruling that gay couples were entitled to the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples. Some of those rights, such as hospital visitation, property rights and family leave, were granted under a 1997 state law.