Massachusetts is on the verge of becoming the first state to sanction same-sex marriage after its high court ruled today Vermont-style civil unions will not pass constitutional muster.

Only full and equal marriage rights for homosexual couples will fulfill its November ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said, paving the way for the nation’s first “gay” weddings in May.

The decision was a response to a request by the state Senate about whether civil unions, which accord many of the rights and privileges of marriage, would be sufficient.

In their advisory opinion, the four justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage wrote: “The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal. The bill that would allow for civil unions, but falls short of marriage, makes for “unconstitutional, inferior, and discriminatory status for same-sex couples.”

The high court decided Nov. 18 homosexual couples are legally entitled to wed under the state constitution and should be allowed to apply for marriage licenses, overturning a ruling by a lower court handed down in May 2002 which said state law does not convey the right of marriage to homosexual couples.

However, the 4-3 ruling stopped short of declaring homosexual couples should be granted the licenses and did not call for them to be immediately issued to the plaintiffs in the case. Instead, the court ordered the state legislature to come up with a solution within 180 days. It granted a stay of its decision in the meantime.

The family advocacy group Focus on the Family called the Massachusetts decision today “the second act in a carefully orchestrated plan of judicial tyranny in that state.”

“I am not surprised that these unelected judges have once again usurped power unconstitutionally, by telling the Legislature how it must meet the demands of the court’s tyrannical decision in Goodridge,” said Vice President Tom Minnery. “It is the constitutional duty of the Legislature, the elected representatives of the people, and not the courts, to decide the social policy for the state.”

Yesterday, Ohio became the 38th state to pass a law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Minnery urged Massachusetts lawmakers to press ahead with a similar law. But, ultimately, he and many conservative activists want to see a federal amendment.

“Now finally everyone in America can clearly see that marriage is under direct attack and must be protected,” Minnery said. “Congress must pass the Federal Marriage Amendment and end this constitutional showdown between the branches of government, both federal and state.”

With the ruling, the Massachusetts legislature is now set to consider an amendment legally defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

However, a constitutional amendment could not be brought before a vote of the people until 2006.

“We’ve heard from the court, but not from the people,” Gov. Mitt Romney said in a statement. “The people of Massachusetts should not be excluded from a decision as fundamental to our society as the definition of marriage.”

Some state Republican chairmen who met at the Republican National Committee in Washington last Friday said they want the White House and the Bush re-election campaign to put more emphasis on the president’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

“It’s clearly important to our base, along with the president’s tax cuts that helped the economy recover nationally,” Virginia state Chairman Kate O. Griffin told the Washington Times.

Last month, a Zogby International poll showed a majority of Massachusetts residents oppose the high court’s November decision.

The survey also indicated most respondents favor a constitutional amendment to protect matrimony as the union of one man and one woman.

According to the Zogby poll, 69 percent of respondents wanted to vote on an amendment to keep Massachusetts a traditional marriage state. Also, 52 percent vs. 42 percent agreed only marriage between one man and one woman should be legal and binding in America.

Additionally, more than two-thirds, or 69 percent, believed it is better for children to be raised in a household with a married mother and father.

“It seems the more people consider the long-term impact of homosexual marriage on the family and society, the more they oppose homosexual marriage,” said Ron Crews, spokesman for the Coalition for Marriage, a non-partisan state and nationwide alliance of supporters of traditional marriage.

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