BY BARRY HATTON, Associated Press
The court said its five judges ruled 3-2 against an appeal lodged by the women two years ago.
Teresa Pires and Helena Paixao, divorced mothers in their 30s who have been together as a couple since 2003, were turned away by a Lisbon registry office when they attempted to marry in 2006 because the law stipulates that marriage is between people of different genders.
Portugal's constitution, however, also forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation. The women took the case to a Lisbon court, which rejected their unprecedented challenge.
After considering their appeal against that decision, the Constitutional Court said in a statement posted on its Web site that the constitution does not state that same-sex marriages must be permitted.
The court said the question before it was not whether the constitution allows same-sex marriages, but whether the constitution compels them to be accepted, which it does not.
Paixao told The Associated Press by telephone she regarded the decision as "a victory" because the split decision demonstrated that attitudes are changing in Portugal.
"It shows there's a change coming. Bit by bit people will come around" and accept gay marriage, she said.
In the meantime, the two intend to take their legal battle to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, she said.
Gay marriage is permitted in five European countries - Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Norway.
In Portugal, which is an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, efforts to introduce gay marriage have hit resistance from religious groups and conservative lawmakers.
However, the center-left Socialist Party has included a proposal to permit same-sex marriages in its manifesto for September's general election. Its chief rival, the center-right Social Democratic Party, opposes the measure. Opinion polls show the two parties are neck-and-neck in voting intentions.
Last year, Portugal's Parliament voted by a large majority against proposals tabled by smaller parties to allow same-sex marriages. The Socialists said at the time the issue needed a fuller debate.
The Socialist Party overcame strong opposition from the Catholic church to legalize abortion two years ago, saying it was part of the Portugal's process of modernization.
The Portuguese delegation of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, which has supported the women's challenge, called on Parliament to resolve the dispute.
Politicians must "fight discrimination and defend the fundamental right of equality," it said in a statement.
Five years ago, Portugal extended some legal benefits - such as joint tax returns - to people who live together, including gays. However, the concessions fell far short of the entitlements gained by marriage.
Caption: In this photo taken photo taken Feb. 16 2006, Teresa Pires, left, embraces Helena Paixao in Aveiro, northern Portugal. The two women were the first gay couple to mount a public challenge to marriage laws in Portugal where same-sex marriage is not allowed. On Friday, July 31 2009, Portugal's Constitutional Court said that its five judges ruled 3-2 against an appeal lodged by Paixao and Pires after they were turned away by a Lisbon registry office because the law stipulates that marriage is between people of different sexes. Armando Franca / AP Photo