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Dozens of gay couples wed in California after ruling

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Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool / AP Photo

Del Martin, 87, center left, and Phyllis Lyon, 84, center right, are married by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom , center, in a special ceremony at City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, June 16, 2008. Also pictured are the couple's witnesses, Roberta Achtenberg, left, and Donna Hitchens. Lyon and Martin became the first officially married same sex couple after California's Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal.

By LISA LEFF, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO -- Dozens of gay couples were married Monday after a landmark ruling making California the second state to allow same-sex nuptials went into effect.

At least five county clerks around the state extended their hours to issue marriage licenses, and many same-sex couples got married on the spot.

"These are not folks who just met each other last week and said, 'Let's get married.' These are folks who have been together in some cases for decades," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The May 15 California Supreme Court ruling overturning bans on same-sex marriage took effect at 5:01 p.m.

The really big rush to the altar was not expected to take place until Tuesday, which is when most counties planned to start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of couples from around the country are expected to seize the opportunity to make their unions official in the eyes of the law.

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom, who helped launch the series of lawsuits that led the court to strike down California's one-man-one-woman marriage laws, presided at the wedding of Del Martin, 87, and Phyllis Lyon, 84.

Newsom picked the couple for the only ceremony in City Hall Monday in recognition of their long relationship and their status as pioneers of the gay rights movement. More than 600 same-sex couples have made appointments to get marriage licenses in San Francisco over the next 10 days.

Martin sat in her wheelchair during the ceremony in Newsom's office, which was open to a few elected officials, reporters and friends.

After the mayor pronounced them "spouses for life," the couple kissed, drawing huge applause.

Newsom called officiating the wedding "this extraordinary and humbling gift."

Meanwhile outside City Hall, a crowd of well-wishers gathered to wish the happy couple congratulations.

A handful of people opposed to gay marriage were also there. Some held signs with statements including "Jesus said go and sin no more."

Just hours before the ruling went into effect, a conservative legal group asked a Sacramento court to order the California agency that oversees marriages to stop issuing gender-neutral marriage licenses.

Gary Kreep of the San Diego County-based United States Justice Foundation said his group filed a petition on behalf of five county supervisors from Yuba, Stanislaus, Nevada and Sutter counties. The petition argues the state Department of Public Health failed to hold legally required public hearings on the licenses and claims legislators must amend state marriage laws before the licenses are valid.

A hearing on the matter was scheduled for Tuesday.

Also Monday, a conservative Christian law firm and a church joined in faxing letters to county clerk offices, telling them that they do not have to do work related to same-sex marriages if it violates their religious beliefs.

Despite the last minute legal efforts, dozens of same-sex couples were married in ceremonies at city offices in San Francisco, Alameda, Sonoma, Los Angeles and Yolo counties.

Derek Norman, 23 and Robert Blaudow, 39, from Memphis, Tenn., were in the Bay Area for a conference and decided to get married at the Alameda County clerk's office.

"We might wait a long time in Tennessee, so this is our chance," Blaudow said.

First in line to pick up a marriage license in Sonoma were Melanie Phoenix, 47, and Terry Robinson, 48, of Santa Rosa. They have been together for almost 26 years and plan to wed in August.

"It's an historic occasion," Phoenix said. "I never believed it was really possible until Gavin Newsom took the first step in 2004."

In February 2004, Newsom decided to challenge California's marriage laws by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In the month that followed, more than 4,000 same-sex couples were married before a judge acting on petitions brought by gay marriage opponents halted the city's spree. The state Supreme Court ultimately voided those unions, but two dozen couples sued and those lawsuits led the same court last month to overturn California's ban on gay marriage.

Among the plaintiffs in those lawsuits was a couple married Monday in a Jewish ceremony in front of the Beverly Hills courthouse.

The ceremony between Robin Tyler and Diane Olson was broadcast live on three newscasts in Los Angeles.

The couple wept and pressed their foreheads together, and onlookers whooped as the marriage became valid.

Rabbi Denise Eger saluted the couple for "these many years of coming to this very place and standing on these courthouse steps year after year of being denied this right, this civil right."

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