NEW HAVEN, Conn. – A judge cleared the way Wednesday for gay marriage in Connecticut, a victory for advocates stung by California's referendum that banned same-sex unions in that state.
Minutes after a judge entered a final ruling, the New Haven city clerk's office issued its first marriage license to a gay couple. It went to Barbara and Robin Levine-Ritterman of New Haven, one of the eight couples who successfully challenged a state law prohibiting gay marriage.
The first wedding in New Haven was of Peg Oliveira and Jennifer Vickery of New Haven, who got married next door to New Haven City Hall near a farmer's market. They said their vows and exchanged rings in a brief ceremony led by state Appellate Court Judge F. Herbert Gruendel.
"I feel so happy," said Vickery, a 44-year-old attorney. "It's so much more emotional than I expected."
It was unknown if theirs was the first in Connecticut, as marriage licenses became available in each of the state's 169 communities at 9:30 a.m.
Celebrating couples, some carrying red roses, streamed into the clerk's office to get their licenses.
"Today, Connecticut sends a message of hope an inspiration to lesbian and gay people throughout this country who simply want to be treated as equal citizens by their government," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Bennett Klein.
The Levine-Rittermans, who have been together since 1989, met a crowd of hundreds outside city hall, which applauded as Barbara Levine-Ritterman proudly held up the new license.
The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Oct. 10 that same-sex couples have the right to wed rather than accept a civil union law designed to give them the same rights as married couples.
Oliveira, 36, a yoga teacher and educational consultant, said marriage makes it clear that her spouse has rights to raise their 3-month-old baby if something should happen to her.
"Everything else dissolved, and it was just the two of us," Oliveira said following the ceremony. "It was so much more personal and powerful in us committing to one another, and so much less about the people around us."
Manchester Town Clerk Joseph Camposeo, president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, said clerks were advised by e-mail shortly after 9:30 a.m. they could start issuing the licenses.
"The feedback I'm getting from other clerks is that we're all at the ready, but no one really has a sense yet of what kind of volume we're going to get," he said.
According to the state public health department, 2,032 civil union licenses were issued in Connecticut between Oct. 2005 and July 2008.
The health department had new marriage applications printed that reflect the change. Instead of putting one name under "bride" and the other under "groom," couples will see two boxes marked "bride/groom/spouse."
Only Connecticut and Massachusetts have legalized gay marriage. The unions were legal in California until a statewide referendum to ban gay marriage narrowly passed last week. The vote has sparked protests and several lawsuits asking that state's Supreme Court to overturn the prohibition.
Constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage also passed last week in Arizona and Florida, and Arkansas voters approved a measure banning unmarried couples from serving as adoptive or foster parents.
However, Connecticut voters last week rejected the idea of a constitutional convention to amend the state's constitution, a major blow to opponents of same-sex marriage.
The Family Institute of Connecticut, a political action group that opposes gay marriage, condemned the high court's decision as undemocratic. Peter Wolfgang, the group's executive director, acknowledged banning gay marriage in Connecticut would be difficult but vowed not to give up.
"Unlike California, we did not have a remedy," Wolfgang said. "It must be overturned with patience, determination and fortitude."
The state's 2005 civil union law will remain on the books, at least for now. Same-sex couples can continue to enter civil unions, which give them the same legal rights and privileges in Connecticut as married couples without the status of being married.
State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers will have to decide the fate of the civil union law.
"We'll definitely be taking this up," he said. The new legislative session opens in January.