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France's top court ruled Friday that mayors cannot refuse to conduct gay marriages on the grounds it goes against their beliefs, following a landmark law which has divided the Catholic country.
The Constitutional Council's ruling followed an appeal by mayors and registrars opposed to the law which entered into force on May 18, making France the 14th country to allow same-sex marriages.
The court said in a five-page ruling that the same-sex marriage law was constitutional because public officials are duty-bound to implement the law regardless of personal objections.
Noting that lawmakers chose not to include an opt-out clause in the law, it said public officials must "apply the law and guarantee the proper functioning and neutrality of the civil service".
"Freedom of conscience is not violated by the officiating of weddings," it said in a statement.
Legalizing gay marriage was an election pledge of Socialist President Francois Hollande, who faced a backlash from the opposition right and the powerful Catholic Church with opponents flooding the streets in protest in the run-up to the law.
The first gay marriage in France was held on May 29, in the southern city of Montpellier, which has a gay-friendly reputation.
But many die-hards have continued to oppose the measure.
The recalcitrant mayors, who claim the backing of some 20,000 elected officials, argued that the lack of such an opt-out clause in the law violated the French constitution.
They said they would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if their objections were rejected in France.
The Mayors for Childhood group, which had filed suit for their right to refuse to conduct gay marriages, said Friday's ruling was a "step backwards for human rights".
They said they would seek a meeting with Hollande.
Hollande himself created confusion in November by evoking the right to the "freedom of conscience" on the part of mayors, but hastily backtracked.
Two mayors, Jean-Michel Colo and Claude Binaud had held out conducting gay weddings, prompting a warning from Interior Minister Manuel Valls. Those weddings were eventually officiated over by their deputies.
A law was then passed in June providing legal sanctions for any official who refused to conduct marriages on the basis of sexual orientation.
Valls had said that public servants refusing to respect the law would be guilty of discrimination. They could be sentenced to up to five years in prison and be slapped with a fine of 75,000 euros ($102,600).
Gay marriage opponents on Friday threatened further action after the judgement, raising the possibility of more street protests.
"It's a great disappointment," said Ludovine de la Rochere, the head of an organization that had spearheaded rallies all over France.
"We are very worried. It's a ruling that stifles freedom," she said.
"The freedom of mayors has been trampled upon. We will certainly launch appeals to rally in the coming weeks."
A recent poll conducted by the Ifop institute showed that 54 percent of the French favoured an opt-out clause for mayors on the issue of gay marriage.