TAMPA, Fla. - In what is believed to be the first ruling of its kind, a judge upheld yesterday the federal law letting states ban same-sex marriages, dismissing a lawsuit by two women seeking to have their Massachusetts marriage recognized here.
Attorneys for conservative groups hailed the ruling by U.S. District Judge James S. Moody as an important first step, but the plaintiffs promised to appeal.
"This is a legal shot heard round the world," said attorney Ellis Rubin, who filed the suit on the women's behalf. "But we are not giving up. ... This case is going to be resolved in the U.S. Supreme Court, and I have said that since the day I filed it."
Although several federal cases are challenging the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, attorneys said yesterday's ruling was the first by a federal judge on a direct challenge to the law.
Moody sided with former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who argued in court filings that the government has a legitimate interest in allowing states to ban same-sex marriages, namely to encourage "stable relationships" for the rearing of children by both biological parents.
The Justice Department did not immediately comment on the ruling.
The plaintiffs, Nancy Wilson and Paula Schoenwether, a couple for 27 years who live in Tampa, were married in Massachusetts in July. They wanted their union recognized in Florida, where state law specifically bans same-sex marriages.
The women argued that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it was discriminatory on the basis of sex and violated their fundamental rights.
Not 'fundamental right'
But Moody disagreed, saying the law was not discriminatory because it treats men and women equally and that the government met its burden of stating a legitimate interest for allowing marriages to exist only between men and women.
Moody said he could not declare marriage a "fundamental right," as the lawsuit urged him to do, and that he was bound to follow legal precedent.
"The legislatures of individual states may decide to overturn its precedent and strike down" the law, Moody wrote. "But, until then, this court is constrained to hold [the law] and the Florida statutes ... constitutionally valid."
Wilson, a minister for Metropolitan Community Churches, one of the world's largest congregations of gay Christians, said in a statement that she was prepared to take her challenge to the Supreme Court.
"Despite this ruling, we are still married in our hearts, and legally married in Massachusetts," she said. Her partner added: "No civil rights movement was lost on one bad court decision."
Conservative Christian groups applauded the ruling.
"Today we have witnessed a significant victory - for marriage and democracy," said Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, which is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages.
"Unfortunately, at any time, marriage in any jurisdiction is only one judge away from being ruled unconstitutional," he said.
Last year, a federal bankruptcy judge in Washington state ruled the Defense of Marriage Act constitutional when a lesbian couple sought to file for bankruptcy as a heterosexual couple would. But that decision was not binding on other courts.
State ruling reversed
In another gay marriage ruling yesterday, the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously reinstated an anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution that was overwhelmingly approved by voters in September.
The high court reversed a ruling by a state district judge, who struck down the "defense of marriage" amendment in October on the grounds that the measure dealt with more than one subject, in violation of the Louisiana Constitution.
But the state Supreme Court said: "Each provision of the amendment is germane to the single object of defense of marriage."
The amendment was put on the ballot by the Legislature and approved by 78 percent of the voters. Eleven other states adopted similar amendments in the fall elections.
"We're obviously delighted," said Michael Johnson, an attorney for Alliance Defense Fund, which argued for the amendment's legality.
Gay-rights activist Chris Daigle called the ruling an outrage, saying it does nothing to defend marriage.
"High divorce rates, high adultery rates, poverty, lack of education, parents having to hold more than one job, those are the real threats to marriage," said Daigle, a state legislative candidate.
But other opponents of the amendment said they were pleased that the court noted that it would not affect the rights of unmarried couples, gay or heterosexual.
In striking down the amendment, Judge William Morvant of Baton Rouge had ruled that it would also prevent the state from recognizing common-law relationships, domestic partnerships and civil unions between gay and heterosexual couples.
At issue was a provision that stated: "A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be recognized."
But the high court said the amendment would not stop unmarried couples from buying property together, making medical decisions for each other or leaving their estates to one another.
Randy Evans, an attorney for the gay-rights group Forum for Equality, called the ruling "a decision worthy of Solomon."
Legislative backers of the amendment said that although gay marriages were already banned by state law, the amendment was needed to ensure that courts would not authorize such marriages, as occurred in Massachusetts.