Massachusetts moved closer to becoming the first state in the country to legalize homosexual marriage after the state’s highest court struck down a ban on same-sex marriages.

The Supreme Judicial Court decided 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.

“Barring an individual from the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution,” wrote Chief Justice Margaret Marshall in the opinion.

However, the 4-3 ruling stopped short of declaring that homosexual couples should be granted the licenses, and does 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.

“Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support. It brings stability to our society,” reads the opinion. “For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial and social benefits. In return, it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations.”

The justices decided the legislature was the best body to address the social implications.

Massachusetts lawmakers are already considering a constitutional amendment to legally define a marriage as a union between one man and one woman, a proposal backed by Speaker of the House Tom Finneran.

In 2001, seven homosexual couples – including Gary Chalmers and Rich Linnell from Northbridge, Mass., and Gina Smith and Heidi Norton from Northampton, Mass. – sued the state Department of Public Health, which administers marriage laws, after each was denied a marriage license from their city and town halls.

When a Suffolk County Superior Court judge threw out the case in 2002, the plaintiffs appealed to the state’s high court, arguing their basic constitutional rights had been violated.

“The right to marry the person you love and with whom you wish to share your life is one of the most fundamental of all our human and civil rights,” the plaintiffs wrote in a legal brief obtained by the Associated Press. “The desire to marry is grounded in the intangibles of love, an enduring commitment and a shared journey through life.”

Attorney Mary Bonauto, who represented the plaintiffs, interpreted the ruling as a complete victory and said the legislature must now change the law to allow homosexual couples to marry.

“This is a very good day for gay and lesbian families in Massachusetts and throughout the country,” Bonauto told Fox News.

The ruling mirrors a 1999 decision by neighboring Vermont Supreme Court, which also put the question of legalization into the hands of state lawmakers. The Vermont Legislature ultimately approved civil unions in 2000, which allow same-sex couples to enjoy many of the same benefits of marriage.

The landmark decision gives homosexual advocates another foothold in the burgeoning national debate over legalizing same-sex unions. It follows the watershed United States Supreme Court ruling in June in which justices rejected a longtime ban on same-sex sodomy in Texas. That case was widely viewed as the “Roe v. Wade” for homosexual activists.

“This is a great day and a joyous day for families in Massachusetts,” Susan Sommer with Lambda Legal Defense Fund told Fox News.

“We certainly hope other states and communities respect the families in Massachusetts,” Sommer continued, suggesting states across the country could and should use the ruling as precedent to legalize same-sex marriage.

As homosexual activists celebrate the ruling, opponents expressed outrage and disappointment.

“Marriage, by definition, has always been about one man and one woman. But all the radical activists had to do was get a case into a court willing to invent a ‘right’ to homosexual ‘marriage,'” Alan E. Sears, president of the Alliance Defense Fund, said in a statement.

Sears predicted the Massachusetts ruling will be a lynchpin for efforts under way across the country.

“Radical homosexual activists have made their intentions clear – ‘couples’ will now converge on Massachusetts, ‘marry,’ and return to their respective states and file lawsuits to challenge Defense of Marriage Acts (DOMAs) and try to force the states to recognize their ‘marriages,'” Sears said.

Thirty-seven states have passed DOMAs.

Constitutional experts also called the ruling troubling. The public-interest legal group The American Center for Law and Justice vowed to work to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) at the national level.”

“We’re deeply troubled that the court put same-sex marriage on the same legal footing as marriage between a man and a woman, said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ. “By redefining the institution of marriage, the court ignored well over 300 years of Massachusetts common law. The opinion, in our view, is legally flawed. It is clear the ramifications of this decision will have an impact beyond Massachusetts.”

Other state courts have rejected same-sex marriage claims, most recently in New Jersey where a court ruled there is no history to justify it as a constitutional right. Arizona and Indiana also rebuffed attempts to redefine the traditional definition in the past six months.

Sears points out the U.S. Supreme Court has itself recognized the connection between marriage and a free society, referring to traditional marriage over 100 years ago as “the foundation of the family and society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”

Canadian courts in Ontario and British Columbia recently legalized homosexual marriage, as have Belgium and the Netherlands.

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