Gay activists celebrated Friday as a panel of Ontario judges ordered Parliament to broaden its definition of marriage to include gay men and women, the first decision of its kind in Canada.

"We're no longer second-class citizens in this country and the time has come for change," said Joe Varnell, one of the people who sued for the right to marry another man.

"My relationship is validated and nobody can say we're not a real family anymore."

In a unanimous ruling, the panel of three judges said that prohibiting gay couples from marrying violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Some constitutional experts predicted the decision would have a ripple effect across the country.

"Certainly it is an historic decision and it is unprecedented," said Roslyn Levine, counsel to the federal attorney general.

"It means marriage is no longer limited to one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."

Friday's ruling dealt with two Toronto couples gay men and gay women who had sued the government of Ontario for not accepting their marriages as legally valid.

Both couples wed during a joint service at a Toronto church in January 2001. They had used the old Christian tradition of reading banns formally asking the congregation if anyone objected to the couple's marriage for three consecutive Sundays in order to get city-issued marriage licences.

But when the couples tried to have their unions registered with the province, the minister of consumer affairs refused.

Ontario and other provinces have argued that federal law stipulates a marriage must be between a man and a woman.

Varnell and his partner Kevin Bourassa cried and kissed outside a Toronto courthouse Friday after winning their legal battle.

"We've finally come to the point in this country where all families are going to be treated equal," Varnell said. "The courts heard us. They have finally made it clear that this country can't continue to discriminate."

"Some may believe that this is a courageous decision," said the couple's lawyer, Martha McCarthy. "But it is the obvious and correct one."

But not everyone agrees with the ruling. Derek Rogusky's group Focus On the Family, a coalition of Conservative and religious groups, intervened in the cases and opposes any redefinition of marriage.

"What's really happening is, I think, people are trying to force upon others acceptance of their relationship. And the reality is that many Canadians still find same-sex relationships morally offensive," he said.

The Ontario Superior Court has given the federal government two years to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Justice Heather Smith acknowledged that Parliament needs time to redefine "marriage" in applicable legislation.

Lawyers disagreed over what might happen if Ottawa refused to change the definition. Some said the ruling would still force the province of Ontario to register same-sex marriages in two years, even if Parliament did not act.

The federal government has 15 days to decide whether to appeal Friday's decision.

A ruling against gay marriages in British Columbia is expected to be heard by the Court of Appeal of British Columbia early next year. A judge in Montreal is also to rule on a similar case.

Some legal experts believe the Supreme Court of Canada will eventually be asked to settle the matter.