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Scores of Gay Couples Wed in San Francisco

San Francisco officials presided over the marriages of scores of same-sex couples Thursday and issued dozens more marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

The act of civil disobedience was a political and legal challenge to California law. It pre-empted the efforts of the Campaign for California Families (search) to block Mayor Gavin Newsom's plan to license same-sex marriages (search).

A spokesman for the group vowed it would file an injunction request Friday and characterized Thursday's marriages as 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, the group's executive director. "This is nothing more than a publicity stunt that disrespects our state law and system of government itself."

By the end of the day, 87 marriage ceremonies were performed, and 95 marriage licenses had been issued.

Longtime lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon (search), 79, and Del Martin (search), 83, were the first to be married. San Francisco Assessor Mabel Teng wed them at 11:10 a.m. PST in a closed-door civil ceremony at City Hall, mayor's spokesman Peter Ragone said.

The two have been a couple for 51 years.

It remains unclear what practical value their marriage license will have, but the symbolism was self-evident on a day when lawmakers in Massachusetts were debating a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage but legalize civil unions.

Thursday's marriages defy a ballot measure California voters approved in 2000 that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. State lawmakers subsequently passed a domestic partner law that, when it goes into effect in 2005, will offer the most generous protections to gays and lesbians outside Vermont.

San Francisco officials insisted Thursday that the licenses were legally binding.

"Today a barrier to true justice has been removed," the mayor said in a statement.

Campaign for California Families has sued, so far unsuccessfully, to block the state's domestic partner law, which 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.

On Thursday, San Francisco City Hall was crowded with jubilant same-sex couples.

"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.

The vows in one of the marriages, performed before television cameras, replaced the traditional phrasing take each other as "husband and wife" with "spouse for life."

As some couples wed, scores more crowded outside the San Francisco County Clerk's office awaiting licenses, many arm in arm. One woman, 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.

Before the crowds arrived, the elderly couple said after the brief morning ceremony that they were going home to rest and didn't plan anything to celebrate. Still, it was a profound moment for the pair, veterans of decades of gay rights struggles.

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

Mayor Newsom 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 (search) and former city official Roberta Achtenberg.

Across the nation, gay and lesbian couples headed to courthouses seeking marriages licenses Thursday as part of National Freedom to Marry day, which has been held on Feb. 12 since 1998.

The grass roots events are meant to raise awareness about marriage equality, said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a group working for recognized gay marriages nationwide.

In Wisconsin, gay and lesbian couples in six cities applied for marriage licenses Thursday, in part to protest a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit them from getting married or entering into civil unions.

Five gay and lesbian couples in Columbia, S.C., applied for marriage licenses Thursday but were denied.

And in Minneapolis, 50 same-sex couples gathered to sign up with the state's domestic partner registry, saying the registry is an important step toward legally recognized marriages.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.