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For Gay Couples, Anniversary Party

Unions' Legality Still Hotly Debated

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page A10

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 12 -- The couples began arriving at City Hall well before the 10 a.m. celebration, packing the rotunda and spreading out over two floors. They brought their children, parents, friends, photos of their wedding ceremonies, balloons and champagne.

For nearly 4,000 gay couples, San Francisco's City Hall is a historic, romantic place, and Saturday was a holiday: the anniversary of the day when Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the county clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

That act, which began with a ceremony for a lesbian couple who had been together for more than 50 years, sparked an exchange of vows for 3,955 gay couples before the California Supreme Court halted the marriages on March 11. It also heated up the debate over same-sex marriage in this country, from simmering to a roiling boil.

A year later, those on both sides of the issue say San Francisco energized their movements, both sides claim gains and losses, and both sides agree there are many fights to come.

The sight of gay partners taking their vows outside and inside San Francisco's City Hall inspired similar moves in New Mexico, Oregon and New York, prompted legal challenges to marriage bans, and foreshadowed the first legal marriages for same-sex couples, which began in Massachusetts last May.

It also galvanized opponents of same-sex marriage. Led by religious conservatives, they say the San Francisco weddings helped turn out their voters on Election Day in November, when 11 states passed laws banning same-sex unions and evangelical Christians turned out in droves for President Bush, who supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Opponents are now working to get 21 other states to pass constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage and, in several cases, civil unions. They are also pushing for a new vote on a federal constitutional amendment, which failed to pass in Congress last year.

"There is no question that gay marriage had a galvanizing effect beyond what we even expected," said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Focus on the Family, one of the leading conservative religious groups opposing same-sex marriage.

Proponents of same-sex marriage say that in four states -- California, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maine -- legislation is pending that would allow gay partners to marry. Court cases that they say could allow same-sex marriage are pending in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington state.

In addition, a Superior Court judge in San Francisco is expected to decide any day whether California's ban on same-sex marriage is constitutional. Earlier this month, a judge in Manhattan ruled for five couples who demanded marriage licenses last summer from the city clerk's office; she called the law banning their marriages unconstitutional. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R), who noted he supports same-sex marriage, said he plans to appeal the ruling because it is against New York state law.

"You can't turn back the clock," said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is a lead plaintiff in the suit challenging the legality of California's law limiting marriage to heterosexuals.

For same-sex marriage proponents all over the country, this was "Marriage Equality" weekend, the launch of a renewed effort to plan strategy to fight what many acknowledge will be an uphill battle to prevent the upcoming state ballot initiatives from passing.

In San Francisco, gay leaders from throughout the nation and about 1,000 of the same-sex couples who were married last year went to City Hall to celebrate their unions with Newsom. Though the marriages were nullified by the California Supreme Court on Aug. 12, couples interviewed said they consider their unions historic.

"We were legally nullified, but they were not spiritually nullified," said Robert Castillo, who had wed his partner of 14 years, John Pennycuff, on March 5. The two came to San Francisco from Chicago on Feb. 20 and waited 11 hours before they could get a license.

Newsom, who is popular among those who support same-sex marriages, received thunderous applause from people gathered in the rotunda as he approached to speak.

"We love you, Gavin!" someone shouted out.

"I love you, too," Newsom said.

A Democrat who was criticized by many in his party for the same-sex marriages, Newsom fired back. "I think it's time to hold our elected officials accountable," he said. "It's not acceptable to ask for your money and your support and then say it's too much too soon" when it comes to same-sex marriage. His words were an allusion to comments Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) made after the Nov. 2 election, when she suggested that San Francisco's same-sex marriages helped sway the election in Bush's favor.

As for Bush, Newsom led a chant chastising the president for reavowing his support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. "Shame on you, George Bush!" Newsom said. "Shame on you, George Bush!" crowd members screamed back.

Special correspondent Joe Dignan in San Francisco contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company