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June 13, 2008

First couple in California's 2004 marriages will say vows again on Monday

San Francisco--Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin will be the first same-sex couple to marry in California--again.

They were the first people to say “I do” when Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the city to perform same-sex marriages in 2004. But those vows and thousands of others were voided when courts ruled that Newsom had exceeded his authority.

Now that the California Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriages, the couple, who have been together for over 50 years, will again have the honor of being the first in line.

Newson will marry the two in a special ceremony at City Hall at 5:01 pm on June 16, when the court’s May 15 ruling takes effect. The flood will begin for the rest of the populace when county clerks’ offices open the next morning.

That date could have been pushed further back, or even suspended completely, had the justices stayed their ruling, as was requested by the anti-gay Alliance Defense Fund of Arizona and other rightist legal and religious groups.

They argued that the ruling should be stayed at least until November, pending the vote on a marriage ban amendment that has now qualified for the ballot. Should weddings begin in June and the amendment pass, they said, it would cause chaos for the legal system since the measure would overturn the court’s ruling.

The justices issued a one-page decision on June 4 denying their request and saying that vows would begin on schedule. They did not give the reasons behind their decision, but the same three justices who dissented in the marriage case also supported the stay.

In rejecting the delay, the court also clarified its ruling, indicating that marriages need not await an appeals court’s order, as the original ruling suggested.

‘May no one put asunder’

Marriage as a fait accompli may be the best weapon in the fight over the ban amendment, which is expected to be one of the most expensive battles over a ballot issue in history.

The pro-gay side will now be able to create advertisements likening the amendment to “forced divorce” and talk about the measure tearing families apart, which may shift the moral high ground even among some religious voters.

Also, with over four months of same-sex nuptials, the initial shock for the general public will wear off and predictions of civilization’s fall will be less believable than if the marriage ruling had been stayed.

One of those nuptials will be that of Contra Costa County clerk-recorder Stephen Weir, who after 18 years of issuing marriage licenses, will finally get one of his own.

He plans to open his office early on June 17 so he and his partner, John Hemm, can get hitched before the crowds surge into his office in California’s ninth-largest county, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I’ve waited all of this time to be able to walk into my own office and stand in line and pay what used to be $64 and now is $85 to buy a license and have a ceremony,” he said.

Weir, who is also the president of the state clerks association, spent nine years on the Concord City Council, but ran for county clerk so he could be more open about his sexual orientation with less possibility of political fallout.

Shortly after, he began dating Hemm and their relationship grew more serious, so they started appearing at public events together.

Weir said that, if his colleagues thought any differently about him after that, they never let on.

One county cancels all ceremonies

Not all county clerks are as pleased with the prospect of same-sex marriage as is Weir.

Ann Barnett, the clerk of Kern County, and Stephen Jones of Merced County issued statements last week saying that they will obey state law by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but will no longer perform marriage ceremonies in their offices--same-sex or opposite-sex. Both counties are in the agricultural Central Valley.

Jones later retracted his statement after coming under fire from county officials.

California law requires county clerks to issue marriage licenses, but there is no legal obligation to perform the civil ceremonies. Clerks can deputize others to join couples, but Barnett has refused to do so, canceling 25 opposite-sex weddings already scheduled.

She claimed that a lack of space and staff make it impossible to continue marriages, although her office married thousands of couples last year in two rooms set aside for the purpose.

Jones retracted his statement when county officials approved another clerk position to perform weddings and agreed to move some of the election equipment stored in his offices to create more space for ceremonies. His office only performs 500 a year now.

“On the 17th I expect to be absolutely bombarded,” Jones noted.

California has no residency requirement, unlike Massachusetts, the only other state with full same-sex marriage, so couples from across the nation are expected to flock there to take their vows. (Canada also has no residency requirement.)

Don’t marry and sue, say nine groups

A coalition of LGBT and allied organizations, however, is warning that it would harm the cause of marriage equality for residents of other states to wed in California and then sue for their home states to recognize their marriages.

“Now that we’ve won marriage in California, should we be bringing cases in other states or suing the federal government?” the statement, entitled “Make Change, Not Lawsuits,” says. “If not, what can we do to help secure the freedom to marry nationwide?”

The coalition advises, “If you’re ready and it’s right for you, get married in California. If you do, claim the name and act like what you are--married. But don’t go suing right away. Most lawsuits will likely set us all back. There are other ways to fight which are more likely to win.”

The document, posted on the American Civil Liberties Union website, points out that it will be more difficult to gain marriage equality in states where lawsuits have already been lost, and new losses would hurt momentum in other states that have a better chance of passing bills in favor of marriage equality.

It also suggests that the first battle that must be won is for the hearts and minds of America, and that public sentiment will then sway legislative and judicial decisions.

The most immediate goal, it says, is to keep hold of the California victory by defeating the proposed constitutional amendment.

The nine groups that issued the statement are the ACLU, Lambda Legal, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Equality Federation, Freedom to Marry, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

New York, Rhode Island honor vows

Two states where same-sex couples cannot marry will already recognize California marriages: New York and Rhode Island.

New York Gov. David Paterson said in a video sent to all state agencies: “Agencies that do not afford comity or full faith and credit to same-sex marriages that are legally performed in other jurisdictions could be subject to liability. In addition, extension of such recognition is consistent with state policy.”

“I am directing agency heads that we will recognize marriages conducted outside our state right here in New York state,” he said, according to the New York Observer.

“I am David Paterson and I approve this message,” he joked at the end. “Nobody made me make this message. Nobody cajoled or coerced me into giving these thoughts.”

Five right-wing state legislators promptly filed suit, represented by the same Alliance Defense Fund as in the California case.

On May 29, Rhode Island assistant attorney general James R. Lee said that they would also recognize marriages performed in California.

"Our state would recognize marriages performed in any other state unless it was odious to Rhode Island's public policy," he told the New York Times.

That follows a 2007 opinion by the state’s attorney general that Rhode Island would recognize marriages performed in Massachusetts.

Same-sex marriage is also legal in Canada, Spain, Belgium, South Africa and the Netherlands. At press time, Norway’s parliament was debating a full marriage law, which was expected to pass.


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