PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Maryland’s highest court ruled on Tuesday that marriage is between a man and a woman, overturning a lower court ruling and dashing the hopes of nine same-sex couples who wanted legal protection for long-term partners.
The state’s appeals court, in a 4-3 decision, said the state has a legitimate interest in maintaining heterosexual marriage as the institution that allows procreation and the traditional family structure.
“Our task ... is to determine whether the right to same-sex marriage is so deeply embedded in the history, tradition and culture of this state and nation that it should be deemed fundamental,” the court wrote in a 244-page opinion. “We hold that it is not.”
One U.S. state, Massachusetts, has legalized gay marriage, and four others, most recently New Jersey, have a system of civil unions under which same-sex couples in long-term relationships have equal rights to heterosexual married couples.
The court recognized that the intimate relationships of gays and lesbians “extend to the core of the right to personal autonomy.” But it argued that those relationships do not require the courts or the state to formally recognize them as marriage.
Nonetheless, the court said its decision should not have any impact on the state legislature’s right to provide equal rights to same-sex couples if it sees fit.
The top courts of New York and Washington states have ruled it is constitutional to bar same-sex couples from marrying.
John Lestitian, one of the plaintiffs, called the decision a “bump in the road” but pledged that the gay and lesbian community would continue its fight. He said campaigners would now turn to the state legislature in their effort to legalize gay marriage.
“We are not going away,” he told Reuters. “My family is the same as the family next door, and to say we are something else is unacceptable.”
Lestitian, 41, who said he lives with a partner of three years, previously had a 14-year relationship with a partner who died, leaving Lestitian with no rights because state law doesn’t recognize same-sex partnerships. “I realized at his death that I was a legal stranger,” he said.
The court threw out an opinion by the Baltimore Circuit Court which ruled for the plaintiffs, saying that the state’s family law statute discriminates on the basis of gender. The suit was brought by the nine same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses in Baltimore, and one homosexual man, Lestitian, who expressed a wish to apply for a marriage license in future.
David Rocah, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued for the plaintiffs, called the decision — which he said cannot be appealed — “a bitter disappointment.” But he said a bill to allow gay marriage will be introduced into the Maryland legislature early next year.
The decision was welcomed by the Family Research Council, a conservative group which filed a brief in favor of the state’s law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
“We commend the court for upholding the law rather than imposing the views of a persistent minority,” the organization said in a statement. “This is an outright rejection of judicial activism and strengthens the legal battle against same-sex ‘marriage.’”
The group called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman.