ALBANY, N.Y. — New York's top court ruled Thursday that gay couples legally married elsewhere are entitled to some government benefits, boosting stalled legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage.
The Court of Appeals rejected a Christian legal group's argument that same-sex marriage was akin to incest and polygamy, although the court avoided declaring that gay couples are entitled to all the rights of other married couples.
The 4-3 decision was on the narrow question of benefits; the court did not address whether the state must recognize same-sex marriage but encouraged the Legislature to settle the issue.
The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defense Fund, which challenged the benefits, said it was disappointed that the high court chose not to rule on the validity of what it calls "counterfeit marriages."
"In New York, the only relationship recognized as marriage is the committed union of a man and a woman," said Brian Raun, senior counsel for the group. "State and local officials should not attempt to use marriage laws from outside jurisdictions to place their political agendas ahead of the law."
Gay rights advocates said the decision is the latest in a string of wins that bolsters their case for the state Senate to give final approval to a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.
The Democrat-led Assembly passed a bill this year to legalize same-sex marriage, but it hasn't yet reached the floor in the Democrat-led Senate, which has promised to vote by the end of the year but where the measure appears a few votes short of passage.
"It absolutely builds momentum," Empire State Pride Agenda Executive Director Alan Van Capelle said. "It's another court saying the state Senate should act and clarify the issue."
Now, 20 New York judges in different cases have supported government rights for same-sex couples, said Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, a New York-based gay rights organization.
"The ball is now in the state Senate's court," she said.
One of the judges in Thursday's decision warned that failing to address the larger question of recognizing same-sex marriages will create a problem.
"The effect of the majority's rationale in affirming these orders will be to permit an unworkable pattern of conflicting executive and administrative directives ... (at the) individual discretion of each agency head," Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick warned in an otherwise concurring opinion.
"We ought to avoid the confusion that would arise from a same-sex couple considered legally married by one agency for one purpose, but not married by another agency for a different purpose," the judge wrote.
Many gay New Yorkers have been married in a handful of states and Canada but reside in New York and seek hundreds of government benefits and rights they say they've been denied.
Gay marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and Vermont and was for a time in California. A New Hampshire law takes effect next year, and voters in Maine repealed a law this month that would have allowed same-sex marriage.
With Thursday's court decision, legally married same-sex couples will be entitled to public employee health insurance coverage and certain other benefits provided to heterosexual spouses.
The lawsuit challenged the granting of those benefits by the state Civil Service Department and Westchester County, and was upheld in a lower court. That ruling was challenged by the Alliance Defense Fund, which has fought similar decisions nationwide.
Marriages performed elsewhere that are considered abhorrent in New York, including incest and polygamy, are exempt from government benefits for spouses. Raum argued that same-sex marriage should be regarded as another exception.
The defendants had argued that a state rule recognizing common law marriages meant that same-sex unions performed elsewhere should be recognized in New York.
The court said in its decision that it didn't have to consider that argument because of the narrowness of the case, pertaining only to certain benefits, but said it hoped the Legislature would address the question.
Activists are pressing for a law allowing gay marriage in New Jersey, where a recent poll found residents narrowly favor the measure. But key legislators have said there might not be enough support for the bill to pass before Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, leaves office in January.
His elected successor, Republican Chris Christie, has promised to veto it.