A judge declared Friday that a law banning same-sex marriage violates the state constitution, a first-of-its-kind ruling in New York that would clear the way for gay couples to wed if it survives on appeal.
Gay rights activists hailed the ruling as a historic victory that "delivers the state Constitution's promise of equality to all New Yorkers."
"The court recognized that unless gay people can marry, they are not being treated equally under the law," said Susan Sommer, a Lambda Legal Defense Fund lawyer who presented the case for five couples who brought the lawsuit. "Same-sex couples need the protections and security marriage provides, and this ruling says they're entitled to get them the same way straight couples do."
State Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan ruled that the New York City clerk could not deny a license to any couple solely on the ground that the two are of the same sex.
The city Law Department issued a statement saying only, "We are reviewing the decision thoroughly and considering our options."
"Knowing the reaction her ruling would receive, the judge ordered it stayed for 30 days to allow the state attorney general to appeal, which he almost certainly will do," reports CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. "That appeal could take months or even years, so the ruling really is in limbo until the appeals are exhausted."
Mary Jo Kennedy and Jo-Ann Shain, one of the couples in the case, said they were thrilled by the ruling and believed it would offer their family increased legal protection. They have been together 23 years and have a 15-year-old daughter.
"We're just overjoyed," said Shain. "We didn't think it would ever happen.
Kennedy said she wants to marry Shain as soon as possible. "I can't wait," she said. "We went to buy a (marriage) license in March 2004 and couldn't get it. That's what started this whole thing."
The judge noted that one plaintiff, Curtis Woolbright, is the son of an interracial couple who moved to California in 1966 to marry. She said California then was the only state whose courts had ruled that interracial marriage prohibitions were unconstitutional.
The ruling came two days after a judge reinstated criminal charges against New Paltz Village Mayor Jason West who got in trouble for marrying a series of same-sex couples last year.
The resurrection of that case came on the same day that lawmakers in at least three states took up constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Kansas lawmakers placed a ban on the April 5 ballot, while similar constitutional changes failed in Idaho and passed a House committee in South Dakota.
The rush to write same-sex marriage bans into state constitutions is part of a heated debate that West helped ignite last February when he married about two dozen same-sex couples. West, 27, was quickly hit with 24 misdemeanor counts.
But the charges were later dismissed by a town court judge who said there were constitutional problems in banning same-sex marriages.
Ulster County Court Judge J. Michael Bruhn brought back the charges Wednesday, saying public officials cannot pick and choose which laws to obey. He said the case was not about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, but whether West lived up to his oath of office to uphold the law.
The case will now go to trial, barring a settlement or a successful appeal by West's lawyers.
Attorney Joshua Rosenkranz said no decision had been made yet on whether to appeal, but added that "I know that Jason West is chomping at the bit to face a jury of his peers."
West faces fines and up to a year in jail if convicted on the misdemeanor counts of solemnizing marriages without a license.
West has maintained he was upholding the couples' constitutional rights — and thus his oath of office — by allowing them to wed.
"If I told those the gay couples, 'No, I can't marry you because you're gay,' I'd be violating the state constitution and I'd be violating my oath of office," West said.