HARTFORD, Connecticut (Reuters) - Connecticut's highest court on Friday unexpectedly struck down a ban on gay and lesbian marriage, making the New England state the third in the nation to allow full-fledged marriage for same-sex couples.
After four years of legal wrangling in the state court system, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a ban on gay marriage constituted "cognizable harm" and infringed on a "fundamental right" of same-sex couples.
The decision, which overturns a lower court ruling, follows the legalization of gay marriage in California this year and in Massachusetts in 2003. It was hailed by gay rights advocates as a proud day after battles over the culturally divisive issue in several states.
Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican, disagreed with the ruling but said she will uphold it.
"I continue to believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman," Rell said. "I do not believe their voice reflects the majority of the people of Connecticut."
She said she was convinced that any attempt to reverse the decision, either legislatively or by amending the state Constitution, would fail.
The decision came as a surprise after previous courts upheld the ban and lawmakers wrote specific language into a civil union measure defining marriage as between men and women.
Connecticut was one of four U.S. states that permits same-sex civil unions that grant rights such as insurance coverage, tax benefits and hospital visitations. But these lack the full, federal legal protections of marriage.
Opponents of gay marriage said they would seek to overturn the ruling by persuading voters to support a ballot measure next month that would open a state constitutional convention to address the issue of same-sex marriage.
"Then we will put a question on the ballot to allow the public, not our robed masters, to decide once and for all if marriage will be protected in our state constitution as the union between a man and a woman," said Peter Wolfgang, president of the Family Institute of Connecticut, a conservative Christian group.
'WE ARE OVERJOYED'
The plaintiffs in the case -- eight same-sex couples -- challenged the lower court's ruling that civil unions give same-sex couples the same rights and protections as marriage.
They argued that their constitutional rights were denied when they were barred from getting marriage licenses.
"We are overjoyed to tell our twin boys that we will be married, just like their friends' parents," Beth Kerrigan and Jodie Mock, two plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement.
The date when the decision takes effect depends on a trial court order that is expected after October 28, said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.
"It won't take effect immediately but probably in the next month or so," he said in a telephone interview.
When Massachusetts' top court overturned a ban on gay marriage in 2003, opposition was so strong that it drove religious conservatives to the polls in 2004, a factor in the re-election of President George W. Bush.
But this year, just three weeks before the U.S. presidential election, national reaction was relatively muted as the news fought for air time with turmoil in financial markets, tumbling stock prices and signs of a possible global recession.
More than 25 states have constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage, many approved in ballot measures in 2004.
(Additional reporting by Svea-Herbst Bayliss in Boston. Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Xavier Briand)