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HARTFORD, Connecticut - Connecticut's Supreme Court ruled Friday that same-sex couples have the right to marry, making that state the third behind Massachusetts and California to legalize such unions.

The divided court ruled 4-3 that gay and lesbian couples cannot be denied the freedom to marry under the state constitution, and Connecticut's civil unions law does not provide those couples with the same rights as heterosexual couples.

"I can't believe it. We're thrilled, we're absolutely overjoyed. We're finally going to be able, after 33 years, to get married," said Janet Peck of Colchester, who was a plaintiff with her partner, Carole Conklin.

Justices overturned a lower court ruling and found in favor of the plaintiffs, who said the state's marriage law discriminates against them because it applies only to heterosexual couples, therefore denying gay couples the financial, social and emotional benefits of marriage.

"Interpreting our state constitutional provisions in accordance with firmly established equal protection principles leads inevitably to the conclusion that gay persons are entitled to marry the otherwise qualified same sex partner of their choice," Justice Richard N. Palmer wrote in the majority opinion that overturned a lower court finding.

"To decide otherwise would require us to apply one set of constitutional principles to gay persons and another to all others," Palmer wrote.

Gov. disagrees, but won't fight ruling
Connecticut already permitted same-sex civil unions that grant largely the same state rights as to married couples, but lack the full, federal legal protections of marriage.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell said Friday that she disagreed with the court's ruling, but will not fight the ruling.

"The Supreme Court has spoken," Rell said in a statement. "I do not believe their voice reflects the majority of the people of Connecticut. However, I am also firmly convinced that attempts to reverse this decision — either legislatively or by amending the state Constitution — will not meet with success."

Because Friday's decision was based on the state constitution, the ruling cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, NBC News reported. The ruling is to take effect shortly.

Eight same-sex couples sued in 2004, saying their constitutional rights to equal protection and due process were violated when they were denied marriage licenses.

The plaintiffs wanted the court to rule that the law discriminated against them because it applies only to heterosexual couples, therefore denying gay couples the financial, social and emotional benefits of marriage.

The only U.S. states that allow same-sex couples to marry are Massachusetts and California.

Peck said that as soon as the decision was announced, the couple started crying and hugging while juggling excited phone calls from her brother and other friends and family.

"We've always dreamed of being married," she said. "Even though we were lesbians and didn't know if that would ever come true, we always dreamed of it."

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