updated 1/20/2006 3:52:57 PM ET 2006-01-20T20:52:57

A judge on Friday struck down a 33-year-old Maryland law against same-sex marriage, agreeing with 19 gay men and women that it violates the state constitution’s guarantee of equal rights.

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The ruling by Judge M. Brooke Murdock rejected a state argument that the government had a legitimate interest in protecting the traditional family unit of heterosexual parents.

“Although tradition and societal values are important, they cannot be given so much weight that they alone will justify a discriminatory” law, she wrote.

The judge immediately stayed her order to give the state time to file an expected appeal in Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

“This is such an exciting moment,” said Lisa Polyak, a plaintiff with partner Gita Deane.

“Our participation in this lawsuit has always been about family protections for our children. Tonight, we will rest a little easier knowing that those protections are within reach,” Polyak said.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s lawyers were reviewing the ruling, his spokesman Henry Fawell said. The Republican governor has said he believes marriage should be between one man and one woman.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2004 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of nine couples and a man whose partner died. It named court clerks in Baltimore city and Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Dorchester and Washington counties as defendants and challenged a 1973 state law specifying that marriage is a union of one man and one woman.

State sees issue for Legislature, not courts
Along with the argument for preserving the traditional family unit, lawyers for the state had said the issue was a question for the Legislature rather than the courts. Plaintiffs’ lawyers said the ban violates equal rights guaranteed by the state constitution.

Murdock agreed with the plaintiffs, writing that she was “unable to find that preventing same-sex marriage rationally relates to Maryland’s interest in promoting the best interests of children.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, said he believes the ruling will be overturned.

“In my opinion, the plaintiffs forum-shopped,” Miller said. “I don’t think the same opinion would have been rendered in 90 percent of the other circuits in the state of Maryland.”

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