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US: San Francisco officials marry gay couples
Updated: 2004-02-13 08:50

In an open challenge to U.S. California law, city authorities performed at least 15 same-sex weddings Thursday and issued about a dozen more marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

By midafternoon, jubilant gay couples were lining up under City Hall's ornate gold dome and exchanging vows in two-minute ceremonies that followed one after another.

Alexander Westerhoff, front, of Manchester by the Sea, Mass. and his partner Thomas Lang, back, chant together at the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston, Feb. 12, 2004, while the State legislature meets in the constitutional convention to debate a proposed amendment against same-sex marriage at the Statehouse. Westerhoff ahd Lang has been partners for 16 years. [AP]
"Today a barrier to true justice has been removed," said Gavin Newsom, newly elected mayor of the city considered the capital of gay America.

No state legally sanctions gay marriage, and it remains unclear what practical value the marriage licenses will have. The weddings violate a ballot measure California voters approved in 2000 that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The move by San Francisco's mayor came as lawmakers in Massachusetts continued to debate a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in that state, where the nation's first legally recognized same-sex weddings are set to take place this spring under a ruling from the Massachusetts high court.

The assembly-line nuptials began with longtime lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon, 79, and Del Martin, 83, who were hurriedly issued a married license and were wedded just before noon by City Assessor Mabel Teng in a closed-door civil ceremony at City Hall. The two have been a couple for 51 years.

About 30 couples crowded outside the San Francisco County Clerk's office awaiting licenses, many arm in arm. One of the women, wearing a white wedding dress and veil, encouraged couples to shout out their names and how long they had been together.

"I understand there are wrinkles that need to be worked out, but as far as I'm concerned, we will be married," said Molly McKay as she and her partner of eight years, Davina Kotulski, stood at the clerk's counter.

During one of the weddings, performed before TV cameras, the vows were rewritten so that "husband and wife" became "spouse for life."

A conservative group called the Campaign for California Families called the marriages a sham.

"These unlawful certificates are not worth the paper they are printed on. The renegade mayor of San Francisco has no authority to do this," said Randy Thomasson, executive director. "This is nothing more than a publicity stunt that disrespects our state law and system of government itself."

San Francisco officials insisted the licenses are legally binding and would immediately confer new benefits in everything from health coverage to funeral arrangements.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer had no comment.

The gay marriages were timed by city officials to outmaneuver the conservative group. The group had planned to go to court on Friday to stop the mayor's announced plans to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. But city officials struck first.

Lyon and Martin said after their brief ceremony that they were going home to rest and did not plan anything to celebrate. The couple seemed proud of what they had done.

"Why shouldn't we" be able to marry? Lyon asked.

The mayor was not present at the morning ceremony but later presented Martin and Lyon with a signed copy of the state constitution with sections related to equal rights highlighted.

The two official witnesses were Kate Kendell, director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and former city official Roberta Achtenberg.

The conservative group fighting gay marriage has also sued to try to block California's domestic partner law, which then-Gov. Gray Davis signed in September.

That law expands the rights of gay couples in areas ranging from health coverage and parental status to property ownership and funeral arrangements.

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