ATLANTA - The state Supreme Court on Thursday reinstated a ban on gay marriage that was approved overwhelmingly by Georgia voters two years ago, overturning a lower court decision that declared the law unconstitutional.
The unanimous ruling avoids a special session of the General Assembly, which Gov. Sonny Perdue had threatened to call next month if the justices did not overrule Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance Russell's decision.
"We don't do a referendum on everything,'' Perdue, a Republican, said after Thursday's ruling. "But when we do ... we need to be respectful of the people's voice. The Supreme Court has done that.''
With same-sex marriage already illegal under Georgia law, GOP leaders steered a constitutional ban through the Legislature during the 2004 session.
Georgians ratified the amendment later that year, giving it 76 percent of the vote in an election that saw Republicans capture control of the state House and gain seats in the Senate. The presence of gay marriage on the ballot was widely credited with contributing to those GOP victories.
But gay rights and civil rights advocates took the amendment to court, asserting that it violated Georgia's "single-subject rule'' for constitutional changes.
While one part of the amendment limits the definition of marriage in the state to a union between a man and a woman, another provision prohibits partners in same-sex unions from being entitled to the "benefits of marriage.''
The plaintiffs argued that marriage and benefits for domestic partners are separate subjects, and Russell agreed in her ruling last spring.
But a lawyer from the Georgia attorney general's office told the Supreme Court last month that both of those provisions were aimed at accomplishing a single purpose and, thus, met the requirements of the single-subject rule.
Writing for the court, Justice Robert Benham sided with the state's argument in Thursday's ruling.
"(T)he word 'subject matter' as used in the constitution ... is to be given a broad and extended meaning so as to allow the legislature authority to include in one act all matters having a logical or natural connection,'' the ruling stated. "To constitute plurality of subject matter, an act must embrace two or more dissimilar and discordant subjects.''
Chuck Bowen, executive director of Georgia Equality, a gay rights advocacy group, said he was disappointed with the decision.
But he said avoiding a special session in an election year at least will prevent candidates from using opposition to same-sex marriage as a campaign issue.
"Our families and our lives should never be used to pander for votes,'' Bowen said.