OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The Washington Supreme Court upheld the state's ban on gay marriage Wednesday, dealing the gay rights movement its second major defeat in less than a month in a liberal-leaning state that was regarded as an especially promising battleground.
The ruling leaves Massachusetts as the only state to allow gays to wed.
In a 5-4 decision, the court said lawmakers have the power to restrict marriage to a man and a woman, and it left intact the state's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act.
Earlier this month, New York's high court dealt gay couples a similar blow when it upheld a state law against same-sex marriage.
Wednesday's ruling surprised and delighted gay-marriage opponents, given Washington state's liberal politics, particularly in Seattle.
"This is more than we could have imagined. We are shocked, and pleasantly shocked. We were prepared for the other direction," said Jon Russell, field director for the conservative Faith and Freedom Network.
Disappointment was perhaps greatest in Seattle, home of the state's most visible gay community.
"There aren't words to describe how hurt people in the gay and lesbian community are. There's a lot of tears and a lot of anger right now. Emotion is raw," said state Rep. Ed Murray, a Seattle Democrat and one of four openly gay state lawmakers.
The state Supreme Court overruled two lower courts that had found the ban violated the Washington Constitution's "privileges and immunities" section.
The Legislature has "a compelling governmental interest in preserving the institution of marriage, as well as the healthy families and children it promotes." Justice James Johnson wrote. "This conclusion may not be changed by mere passage of time or currents of public favor and surely not changed by courts."
However, three justices in the majority invited the Legislature to take another look at the "clear hardship" that the ban causes for gay couples.
In a dissent, Justice Mary Fairhurst said the majority improperly bowed to public opinion. "Unfortunately, the (majority) are willing to turn a blind eye to DOMA's discrimination because a popular majority still favors that discrimination," she wrote.
The 19 gay and lesbian couples who sued to overturn the law were dismayed by the ruling.
"I believe that our constitution should treat all of its citizens the same, and in this case the court was willing to treat my family differently than other families," said Brenda Bauer of Seattle, who sued along with her partner, Celia Castle. "Today's a pretty sad day for our family."
Leaders in the Legislature and Gov. Chris Gregoire -- all Democrats -- did not commit themselves to any course of action.
"Just as the public is divided over the issue, so is the Legislature," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. Gregoire said: "The Supreme Court has ruled and we must accept their decision whether we agree with it or not."
In Seattle, King County Executive Ron Sims, who backed the push for gay marriage, said his next step would be to press for civil unions, which are allowed in Vermont and Connecticut.
"There's still hope in the long run," Sims said. "I still dream for a just society."
Forty-five states have laws banning gay marriage or limiting marriage to between a man and a woman.
In other recent rulings on the issue, courts reinstated voter-approved bans on gay marriage in Nebraska and Georgia, and Tennessee's Supreme Court ruled that voters there should have a say on allowing gay marriage.