Gay Couples Flock to S.F. for Marriage Licenses

Tuesday , February 17, 2004




As hundreds of gay and lesbian couples lined up at City Hall for the historic chance to wed with the city's blessing, opponents filed legal papers Monday arguing that only judges can declare California's prohibition on same-sex marriages (search) to be unconstitutional.

In a brief submitted for a court hearing Tuesday, lawyers for one of two groups seeking to block the unprecedented wedding march said Mayor Gavin Newsom (search) was in blatant violation of state law when he directed the county clerk to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

Newsom has argued that the equal protection clause of the California Constitution makes denying marriage licenses to gay couples illegal. But lawyers for a group formed to defend Proposition 22 — a 2000 ballot initiative that says the state will recognize only marriages between a man and woman as valid — contend the mayor lacks the authority to make that decision.

"What the mayor and his cronies have attempted to do is short-circuit the legal process by being both judge and jury themselves," said Alliance Defense Fund (search) attorney Benjamin Bull.

The city's lawyers said they will argue that local government agencies or officials are not barred from advancing their own interpretations of the state constitution. They also claim the plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that continuing to issue licenses for same-sex couples would cause the irreparable harm necessary to obtain a court stay.

"Same-sex couples denied the right to marry face far greater harm than the petitioners here," stated a legal brief filed by the city Monday.

The looming legal showdown didn't deter thousands of people from lining up outside City Hall in the rain Monday. They hoped to join more than 1,700 other same-sex couples who have exchanged vows here in recent days. Despite miserable weather, many couples camped out overnight rather than risk going home still single.

"This is an opportunity we couldn't pass up," said David Miller of San Francisco as he and his boyfriend, Guadalupe Jimenez, waited in a line that snaked from the county clerk's office and wound three blocks around the ornate building.

Since San Francisco officials began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples last Thursday, hundreds of gays and lesbians have wed. Most are from the Bay Area but about 50 are from other states, including New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, Assessor Mabel Teng said.

Many of the city workers who helped process the licenses during the holiday weekend were volunteering their time, Teng said. She expected more than 600 same-sex couples to wed Monday, bringing the total to about 2,350.

The city will continue issuing marriage licenses on Tuesday "unless told otherwise by the city attorney," she said. But she added that the city will be able to issue only about 30 to 50 licenses a day starting Tuesday because the volunteers will have to return to their regular jobs.

On Monday, a cadre of city workers deputized to perform weddings simultaneously presided over 10 ceremonies on the grand marble staircase at City Hall. Moved by the happy spectacle, caterers and donors kept the waiting couples nourished with donated pizzas, bagels, soup and coffee.

"Usually, humanity comes out like this when there is a disaster, but here we have a joyous, civil rights thing going on, and people have just rallied," the Rev. Penny Nixon said as she prepared to officiate at a friend's wedding.

If Superior Court Judge James L. Warren (search) denies the Alliance Defense Fund's request for an emergency stay Tuesday, Bull said he will immediately appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.

A second group, the Campaign for California Families (search), has a hearing scheduled before a different judge Tuesday. It wants an injunction to keep the city from issuing any more licenses to same-sex couples, and a declaration to invalidate the licenses already granted.