ATLANTA — In a decision that could lead to election-year maneuvering and set the stage for a key Georgia Supreme Court ruling, a judge struck down the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance C. Russell ruled that the measure, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2004, violated the state constitution’s single-subject rules for ballot questions.

“Procedural safeguards such as the single-subject rule rarely enjoy popular support,” Russell wrote in her ruling. “But, ultimately it is those safeguards that preserve our liberties, because they ensure that the actions of government are constrained by the rule of law.”

Gay rights activists savored their victory, but said they were on guard for an appeal to the state’s highest court and a push from the measure’s GOP backers to call a special session of the state’s Legislature to revive the issue in time for November’s elections.

“This is something that could be addressed in the next regular session if need be,” said Chuck Bowen, director of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest gay advocacy organization. “But we’re prepared for whatever the results are.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue said he was disappointed by the decision and that he was still weighing his options. His spokesman, Dan McLagan, would not say if that included calling a special session.

“The people of Georgia knew exactly what they were doing when an overwhelming 76 percent voted in support of this constitutional amendment,” said Perdue, a Republican. “It is sad that a single judge has chosen to reverse this decision.”

Activists had long awaited Russell’s ruling in their court challenge, which was originally filed in November 2004, soon after the constitutional ban was approved in that year’s general election.

“It’s a victory for voters,” said Jack Senterfitt, who challenged the amendment on behalf of gay rights organization Lambda Legal. “Ultimately it is those safeguards that preserve our liberties. And the reason it’s a victory for voters is that it protects the right of voters to make independent decisions on each independent issue.”

In her ruling, Russell said before the state’s voters can be asked to decide whether same-sex marriages should be banned, they must first decide whether same-sex relationships should have any legal status before the law.

“People who believe marriages between men and women should have a unique and privileged place in our society may also believe that same-sex relationships should have some place — although not marriage,” she wrote. “The single-subject rule protects the right of those people to hold both views and reflect both judgments by their vote.”

If Georgia lawmakers want to continue to press the issue, they will need to come up with a different ballot amendment comprising of two separate questions, said Beth Littrell, associate legal director of Georgia’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter, which also was a participant in the court challenge.

One question would have to deal with recognition of marriage as between a man and a woman and the other to address legal recognition of same-sex relationships, Littrell said.

“Civil unions and marriages are different things and people feel differently about them,” she said. “And they need to be able to vote on them separately.”

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