The Portuguese Constitutional High Court upheld the country’s ban on same-sex marriage last Friday after it was challenged by a lesbian couple.

Teresa Pires and Helena Paixao, who have been together since 2003, sought legal justice when the Lisbon registry office refused to marry them.

While Portuguese law stipulates that marriage is between people of different genders, it also forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation. However the court said that 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.

Civil unions in Portugal were introduced for same-sex couples in 2001, offering these couples many of the same benefits as marriage. Earlier this year, Prime Minister José Sócrates said that he would introduce a bill to allow same-sex couples the right to marry if he was elected in the September 2009 elections.

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