The highest court in the northeastern State of Massachusetts has issued a ruling that for the first time grants same-sex couples the right to marry in the United States. The decision comes at a time when same-sex marriage is the topic of a national debate.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled late last year that same-sex couples can marry beginning in May. But the state Senate asked the court to consider instead a bill authorizing civil unions. The neighboring state of Vermont passed a similar measure in 1999 allowing gay couples to receive equal benefits.

But the Massachusetts court ruled Wednesday that the civil union bill "maintains an unconstitutional, inferior and discriminatory status for same-sex couples."

Plaintiff attorney Mary Bonauto argued the case for seven gay couples who were denied marriage licenses in Massachusetts. She describes the decision as a victory for gay rights.

"The court has now clarified that equal means equal, the government can not deny marriage rights to same sex couples and the legislature now has the choice of embracing that and understanding that we are at a crossroads, equal means equal, or they can go out of their way to write discrimination into the constitution, which is a fairly outrageous proposition," he said.

The Massachusetts decision comes one day after the midwestern state of Ohio approved a sweeping ban on same-sex unions.

President Bush has vowed to take steps to protect the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, criticized the Massachusetts ruling.

"It is a deeply troubling ruling," he said. "We will be reviewing the decision. Activist judges continue to seek to redefine marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people. The president made it very clear in the State of the Union address that it is important that we respect individuals, but this is a principled stand for one of our most fundamental, enduring institutions and that is the sacred institution of marriage."

President Bush has warned that he will consider seeking a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But critics say Constitutional amendments traditionally grant rather than deny equal rights.

Despite opposition in the Massachusetts legislature, recent polls show that most state residents do not oppose gay marriage.

Boston University Law Professor, Robert Volk, says it is unlikely that Massachusetts will amend its state constitution. "The legislature is going to consider an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would define marriage as a union of a man and woman," he said. "The thing though, that in order to amend the constitution in Massachusetts, first the legislature has to approve the amendment in two sessions and then it goes to the voters of the state."

Mr. Volk points out that even if Massachusetts bans same-sex marriage, that legislation will only take effect after gay couples have had the right to marry. The question then becomes, what happens to them?