Pink wedding bells chime in San Francisco

Gay and lesbian couples from across the United States answered this city’s Valentine’s Day invitation to wed in an unprecedented spree of same-sex marriages that has challenged California law and sent conservative groups scrambling for court intervention.

About 300 people lined up on Saturday morning outside City Hall to secure marriage licenses — and then take each other as ”spouse for life” in brief vows that have given San Francisco’s seat of government the feel of a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

Rodney Vonjaeger and his partner, John Kussmann, both 37, drove overnight from San Diego and arrived at 3am on Saturday.

”We decided if there was ever an opportunity we would do it, so the drive wasn’t even a consideration,” Vonjaeger said as he waited in line on Saturday. They set the hotel alarm for 8am, ”but we were up at seven because of the excitement”.

It was the third straight day that officials issued the licenses to hundreds of gay and lesbian couples. The response has been so overwhelming that nearly 200 city officials, led by newly elected Mayor Gavin Newsom, have volunteered to pitch in, from sheriff’s deputies providing security to clerks processing the licenses.

Those volunteers were out on Saturday morning, handing out forms and pens to couples and answering their many questions.

Despite legal challenges from advocates of traditional marriage, the wedding march that began Thursday morning is expected to continue throughout the long holiday weekend.

By late Friday, city authorities had officiated at 665 same-sex weddings in City Hall, and issued still more licenses. City officials said they would welcome license applications on Saturday, Sunday and Monday — President’s Day, a holiday — to accommodate couples that have flocked here from as far away as New York.

The decision by city officials to stay open over the holiday weekend came after a judge denied a petition on Friday to block more licenses from being granted.

The Arizona-based Alliance Defence Fund asked a Superior Court judge to issue a stay that would prevent San Francisco officials from issuing more licenses and to invalidate the ones that had already been recorded.

”I think the court should set the example that municipal anarchy is unacceptable,” said lawyer Robert Tyler.

The judge said court procedures require them to return on Tuesday to properly make their request.

A second group, Campaign for California Families, also filed a legal challenge to the city’s authority to marry gay and lesbian couples and secured a Tuesday hearing.

”No one made the mayor of San Francisco king; he can’t play God. He cannot trash the vote of the people,” Randy Thomasson, director of the Campaign for California Families, said at a news conference in Los Angeles.

Aside from the lawsuits, the newly married couples may face other obstacles. After a marriage license is recorded by county officials, it is sent to the state Office of Vital Records. A ballot initiative approved by voters in 2000 said the state would only recognise marriages between a man and a woman.

San Francisco officials have insisted the licenses they have handed out are legally binding, although they are revised to be ”gender-neutral”. But a deputy city attorney acknowledged that the state may not accept them.

San Francisco appears to be the first city in the nation officially to support same-sex marriage licenses; city clerks in Arizona and Colorado in 1975 issued licenses to gay and lesbian couples that were later revoked or declared void.

Emboldened by the weddings and the prospect of the nation’s first legal same-sex marriages in Massachusetts in May, gay couples went to courthouses around the nation on Thursday and Friday to demand the right to marry. They were quickly turned away.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said on Friday that administration lawyers were exploring ways to block same-sex marriages that may occur in the state before a proposed constitutional ban could take effect.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that it is unconstitutional to bar gay couples from marriage — a decision reaffirmed by the court last week. Under the decision, the nation’s first legally sanctioned gay marriages are scheduled to begin in mid-May.

Lawmakers are proposing a constitutional amendment that would define marriage a union between one man and one woman, and the legislature resumes its deliberations of amendments on March 11.

Romney aides said no decision would be made until after then. — Sapa-AP

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