PORTLAND, Ore. – Gay couples in Oregon began saying, "I do" on Wednesday.
Multnomah County (search) issued the state's first marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Portland after county officials determined the state constitution required them to do so.
County employee Mary Li held up the very first certificate — showing her and her partner's name under the Oregon seal.
"I can't describe how great it feels," Li said.
More than 50 same-sex couples lined up at a county office building to become officially wed.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski (search) said at a news conference after the ceremonies began that he supports civil unions for gay people but believes current state law does not allow gay marriages.
The Democrat said that although it is Oregon Attorney General Hardy Meyers' (search) job to issue a legal opinion, "I think when you read it and consider the times when it was written they were thinking of a man and a woman getting married."
Multnomah County is just the latest in a string of cities and towns that are acting out on their own and issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
New Paltz Mayor Jason West (search) in New York said he has been overwhelmed by the number of people inquiring about the gay-marriage ceremonies since Thursday night, when he announced it was his moral duty to marry homosexual couples.
He said Wednesday he won't perform any more gay or lesbian marriages until Saturday. The announcement came as authorities said the 26-year-old West now faces 19 criminal counts and could face jail time for issuing the licenses.
"The local district attorney has the authority and responsibility to enforce the law," said New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (search).
Nyack Mayor John Shields also said Wednesday he would also start marrying gay couples and planned to seek a license himself to marry his same-sex partner.
Shields said he will start officiating at weddings of same-sex couples as early as this week and planned to join other gay New Yorkers in visiting municipal clerks' offices Friday seeking marriage licenses.
N.Y. Officials: 'We Have to Uphold the Law'
These moves came as Spitzer — a Democrat — on Wednesday said the nuptials are illegal. The future gubernatorial hopeful said in a statement, however, that he would leave it to the courts to decide if the state law prohibiting gay marriage is constitutional.
"I personally would like to see the law changed, but must respect the law as it now stands," Spitzer said in the statement.
Spitzer said New York's law contains references to "bride and groom" and "husband and wife" and does not authorize same-sex marriage.
New York Gov. George Pataki (search) affirmed the position that the marriages are illegal.
"Marriage under New York State law is and has been for over 200 years between a man and a woman. And we have to uphold that law," he said Wednesday.
In San Francisco, about 3,400 gay couples have been wed since Mayor Gavin Newsom (search) began allowing same-sex marriages Feb. 12.
What started it all was a recent Massachusetts court decision saying the state ban on gay marriages was unconstitutional.
New York and Oregon are among 12 states without laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Oregon state law defines marriage as a "civil contract entered into in person by males at least 17 years of age and females at least 17 years of age."
In Washington, saying same-sex marriages are likely to spread across America like a "wildfire," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist urged his colleagues Tuesday to pass a constitutional amendment banning them.
"We will not let activist judges redefine — I would say radically redefine — what marriage is, and that is a union between a man and a woman," said the Tennessee Republican.
Frist said that Congress should not wait until the states make a final decision on the subject. The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (search) tried to leave the issue up to the states.
President Bush has said he will support such an amendment, saying marriage is between a man and a woman. The Senate Judiciary Constitution subcommittee is probing whether the Massachusetts judges overstepped their bounds.
"Judicial activism has made the defense of marriage a national issue that can only be addressed at the national level," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who is a member of the subcommittee, said the debate "is not about activist judges [as Bush has claimed]. It's about politics — an attempt to drive a wedge between one group of citizens and the rest of the country, solely for partisan advantage."
'We Will Not Discriminate'
Four of the five commissioners in the most populous county in Oregon said earlier Wednesday they decided to allow gay marriage after a legal review indicated it would be unconstitutional to deny them.
"Multnomah County cannot deny marriage licenses to gay or lesbian couples," said Commissioner Lisa Naito. "We will not allow discrimination to continue when the Constitution of the state of Oregon grants privileges equally to all citizens."
Naito was joined by fellow commissioners Maria Rojo De Steffey and Serena Cruz, and commission Chairwoman Diane Linn, at a county office where hundreds of people had already lined up to apply for their marriage licenses.
De Steffey added that the Oregon Constitution "and my Christian faith allow me no other choice."
The mood was festive among the gay couples lined up outside, with gay bar owners handing out free glasses of champagne and many carrying bouquets of roses.
The first in the growing line of couples was Christine Tanner, who won a landmark Oregon Court of Appeals ruling in 1998 requiring all state and local governments in Oregon to offer spousal benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of their employees.
Tanner, a nursing professor at Oregon Health & Science University, said she and her partner have been together for 19 years and raised two children together.
"There are only so many big events in people's lives — birth, marriage and death," said Tanner, who waited overnight in front of a county office in a rainbow-colored lawn chair. "It's a big deal. For us, this is symbolic."
Two protesters yelled at the couples across a yellow police tape as officers kept watch.
"Homosexuality is an abomination to God. God can't stand what's going on today. And I have to stick with God," said one of the pair, a self-described "street preacher" who gave his name as Grant Mercy.
Tanner, however, gave up her place in line to Bonnie Tinker, a longtime gay rights activist and leader of the group Love Makes a Family (search), who said she has been with her partner for 26 years and have raised three children together.
"It wasn't until recently that people were allowed to choose their spouses," Tinker said, referring to past traditions and customs around the world that include arranged marriages and prohibitions on interracial marriages. "People forget what a radical idea that is."