HARTFORD, Conn. — A sharply divided Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Friday that gay couples have the right to get married, ruling that civil unions relegate them to a "separate" and "inferior status" that falls short of full equality.
The 4-3 ruling will make Connecticut the third state, behind Massachusetts and California, to allow same-sex marriages. The decision marks the first time that a court rejected civil unions as an alternative to granting gay couples the right to marry.
Californians will vote next month on a ballot measure that would reinstate the gay marriage ban, but Connecticut's governor and attorney general said there is little chance of a similar challenge to Friday's ruling.
"The Supreme Court has spoken," said Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican who opposes same-sex marriage. "I do not believe their voice reflects the majority of the people of Connecticut. However, I am also firmly convinced that attempts to reverse this decision — either legislatively or by amending the state Constitution — will not meet with success."
Same-sex weddings are expected to begin in Connecticut in less than a month. Out-of-staters will be eligible, but few other states are likely to recognize the unions.
The ruling was thrilling for the plaintiffs, eight couples who sued in 2004 after they tried to get wedding licenses.
"I can't believe it. We're thrilled; we're absolutely overjoyed. We're finally going to be able, after 33 years, to get married," said plaintiff Janet Peck of Colchester.
A year after the suit was filed, Connecticut's General Assembly approved a civil union law that gave same-sex couples the same rights as married couples. At the time, no other state had granted so many rights to gay couples without being ordered to do so by a court, but the plaintiffs declined to drop their lawsuit and said they wanted full marriage rights.
The three dissenters said this contentious issue should be decided by elected lawmakers, not judges. So far, no state has authorized same-sex marriage through its legislation or by a popular vote.