City officials have issued marriage licenses to nearly 100 same-sex couples in San Francisco and could unite scores more while opponents are in court Friday seeking to block the nationally unprecedented nuptials. While the practical value of the marriage licenses remains unclear, their symbolism was evident--especially on a day when lawmakers in Massachusetts debated a constitutional amendment that would strip gays and lesbians of court-ordered marriage rights. As mandated, the Massachusetts legislature adjourned Thursday night--but without reaching a consensus.
San Francisco's newly elected mayor, Gavin Newsom, directed the county clerk to accept applications from same-sex couples for the first time Thursday--an act of political and legal defiance aimed at challenging California's ban on same-sex marriages.
So many couples took the city up on its surprise offer that by late afternoon overwhelmed officials told new applicants to return Friday. In all, the clerk's office issued 95 marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples Thursday, and 87 couples took their vows on the spot. "Even people who are anti-gay marriage might shift their thinking now and realize it's most harmful to take something away when someone already has it," said Virginia Garcia, 40, after wedding Sheila Sernovitz, 50, her partner of 14
The city's bold move, however, caused an outcry from elected officials and groups opposed to marriage rights for same-sex couples. One group, Campaign for California Families, said it would ask a superior court judge Friday for a temporary restraining order that would enjoin the city from granting any more licenses. The organization is also seeking a ruling from the court declaring the city's actions illegal. "Those who received the marriage licenses need to know that they are worthless," said Mathew Staver, whose Florida-based law firm, Liberty Counsel, is representing the plaintiffs. "We are confident that they will be invalidated as soon as a judge is able to issue an order."
It was because of a court order that the Massachusetts legislature convened its constitutional convention, which began Wednesday. The state's supreme judicial court in November ruled it is unconstitutional to ban gay marriage.
Gay and lesbian advocates see the Massachusetts lawmakers' failure to pass an amendment approving civil unions as at least a temporary victory. They condemned the idea of civil unions, arguing it would revert gay people to second-class citizenship after a hard-won court victory. "We've beaten back three amendments to discriminate," said Sen. Jarrett Barrios, an openly gay Democrat from Cambridge. "We'll see what comes next."
Like their counterparts on the West Coast, conservatives in Massachusetts stood firm. "The democratic process has been stymied," said Gerald D'Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference. "The people at this point have no way to respond to the [court] decision. We had a lot of people who wanted this legislature, this convention, to give them something to vote on, and
that was marriage between a man and a woman."
San Francisco officials tried to keep the first marriage--between longtime lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon, 79, and Del Martin, 83--confidential so they could complete it before any court intervention. The pair, who will celebrate 51 years together on Valentine's Day, were wed by San Francisco assessor Mabel Teng at 11:10 a.m. in a closed-door ceremony.
The secrecy that surrounded the Lyon-Martin wedding ended up being unnecessary since California courts were closed in observance of Lincoln's birthday. It also meant that many couples started their days with no idea they would be wed by evening. As word spread, they rushed to City Hall, most dressed casually in jeans, with hastily assembled witnesses, and holding hands as they waited in a long line to pay their $82 license fee. The marble passages beneath City Hall's ornate golden dome echoed with applause as jubilant couples breezed through brief ceremonies, promising to be "spouses for life" instead of husband and wife. "There is a part that doesn't feel romantic at all, but obviously it feels historic," said Guillermo Guerra, 29, who married Andrew Parsons, 39, his partner of eight years.
San Francisco officials acknowledged they might have a long court fight ahead of them but insisted that the licenses were legally binding, saying they would immediately confer new benefits in areas ranging from health coverage to funeral arrangements. At the same time, the freshly revised marriage applications they issued encouraged "same-gender couples" to "seek legal advice regarding the
effect of entering into marriage." "Marriage of lesbian and gay couples may not be recognized as valid by any jurisdiction other than San Francisco and may not be recognized as valid by any
employer," the disclaimer said.
Assemblyman Mark Leno, who shared officiating duties at City Hall with the assessor and four of her deputies, formally introduced legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage throughout California. "It is a tandem challenge," said Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco. "One will be heard in a judicial setting and the other in a legislative setting."
Other state officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, shied away from commenting on the events. Attorney General Bill Lockyer said through a spokeswoman that he hasn't been asked to issue an opinion on the legality of same-sex marriages under California law. But Lockyer has asked his civil rights enforcement section to review how Massachusetts's legal debate might apply to California law. "California's constitution provides broader equal protection rights than other states," spokeswoman Hallye Jordan said.