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NY court OKs out-of-state gay marriage benefits

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York state's top court ruled on Thursday that public officials have the authority to recognize out-of-state gay marriages and pushed state lawmakers to decide whether to legalize same-sex marriage.

Gay marriage opponents had challenged decisions in 2006 by the New York State Department of Civil Service and Westchester County to give health insurance and other benefits to same-sex couples legally married in other states or countries.

The ruling by the New York State Court of Appeals upheld the decision of lower courts, which had dismissed the challenge.

The judges did not take up the broader issue of whether gay marriage is legal. They decided the case on narrower grounds and expressed "hope that the (New York) legislature will address this controversy."

New York's Democrat-controlled State Assembly passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in May, but the measure faces a tough battle in the Senate.

New York Governor David Paterson, a Democrat who supports gay marriage, ordered all state agencies in May 2008 to recognize out-of-state gay marriages and has said he would sign a gay marriage bill into law.

Two recent polls showed a majority of New York voters favor allowing same-sex couples to marry, but another poll showed the public evenly split.

Five U.S. states have legalized gay marriage -- Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Earlier this month voters in Maine voted against it.

About 40 states have laws banning gay marriage, and some states provide for same-sex unions that grant many of the same rights as marriage.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Xavier Briand)