Gay Marriages Begin in California

Gay couples can now legally exchange marriage vows in California — and hundreds of weddings are expected Tuesday. The state Supreme Court overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriages. But a ballot initiative in November might stop them.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. A little later today, gay couples in California are going to start getting legally married. After 5:00 o'clock Pacific Time, a few counties will begin to issue marriage licenses - among them, the county and city of San Francisco. And joining us from San Francisco is NPR's Richard Gonzales. Richard, it's Mayor Gavin Newsome who said he's going to be performing one ceremony, I gather, this afternoon.

RICHARD GONZALES: That's correct, Melissa. Two longtime lesbian activists, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, will be wed by Mayor Newsome in his office at one minute past 5:00 o'clock local time. That's just as soon as the state Supreme Court's decision which legalizes same-sex marriage goes into effect. Now Martin and Lyon have been a couple for more than 50 years. Lyon is 83, Martin is 87, and they were the first couple married back in 2004. So it was their marriage, along with about 4,000 others, that set the stage for the legal battle that was finally resolved when the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

BLOCK: And with that ruling, most of the weddings in California will be beginning tomorrow. What kind of plans are being made across the state to handle the logistics of all these couples who are expected to want to start getting married?

GONZALES: Tomorrow is a big day for all these couples. The city has said it will - city hall will stay open beyond its regular hours of operation, and it will also remain open on Saturday. City employees have been deputized to perform the ceremonies. Other counties around the state will be making similar accommodations. There are at least two counties - Butte and Kern Counties - that have already announced that they cannot handle the rush, or they just don't want to perform same-sex marriages. So those counties will issue marriage licenses, but officials won't perform ceremonies there.

BLOCK: Back in 2004 when the city of San Francisco started performing weddings for gay couples without the permission of the state, there were about 4,000 marriages performed at that time. Is there any projection of how many gay marriages there will be this time around?

GONZALES: No. We have no way of knowing how many couples will step forward this time. San Francisco city officials say that they can issue up to 250 marriage licenses and conduct up to 500 ceremonies each day. I should add that these will be individual ceremonies, that there will not be mass weddings. So what the mayor - Mayor Newsome and his aides are hoping to do is to promote the sense that this is all about people. They want to put of human face on this issue of gay marriage, so that these are committed couples who are getting married. And it's happening at a time when everyone that there is an initiative on the November ballot that would once again define marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. So a lot of people want to get married before that question now goes to the voters here in California. And the forces on both sides on this issue for and against same-sex marriage are gearing up and raising money for what promises to be a very major battle at the ballot box come November.

BLOCK: And it seems like there's a great deal of legal uncertainty, if that ballot measure passes in November, of what happens to any gay couples who've gotten married ahead of time.

GONZALES: Yes. If a ban on same-sex marriage is imposed by the voters - and it would only take a majority to do that - then we basically have a big mess on our hands. The voters can undo the Supreme Court's decision that allows these marriages. However, once these people are married, legal experts say another ban won't be applied retroactively.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Richard Gonzales in San Francisco. Thanks so much.

GONZALES: Thank you.

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In Calif., Both Sides Gear Up for Gay Marriage Battle

Even as California prepares for an expected rush of same-sex couples exchanging vows starting Monday, opponents to gay marriage in the state say the battle isn't over.

They are rallying behind a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would overturn the recent California Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage and would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The measure, called the California Marriage Amendment, is on the November ballot and needs just a simple majority to pass.

Gay and lesbian activists are working to defeat the amendment. At a recent strategy session, the focus was on campaign basics: fundraising, media and endorsements. The supporters of gay marriage in California included more than two dozen representatives from religious and civil rights organizations.

"All civil rights groups understand that fundamental rights — like the freedom to marry the person you love, freedom of religion, freedom of speech — those shouldn't be on the ballot," says Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, a gay civil rights lobby. "And I think ultimately Californians don't think government should be telling anyone who to marry."

On the other side, the California Marriage Amendment is backed by a coalition of national religious and social conservative groups.

"This is a response to the judicial activism of four of the justices on the California Supreme Court," says Matthew Staver, founder of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel. "In fact, the California Supreme Court has given a strong impetus to actually passing this particular amendment. I think in California, for example, the people will have the final say on marriage."

Eight years ago, gay marriage was on the ballot, and 61 percent of California voters rejected it. Staver says he's confident that will happen again.

But if recent polls are any indication, California voters are now almost evenly divided. The outcome of the November initiative looks to be a nail-biter for both sides.

Republican political analyst Allan Hoffenblum says the ballot question is too close to call because the issue won't break down along traditional liberal versus conservative lines.

"This is not a Republican versus Democratic issue," Hoffenblum says. "A key area of the Democratic coalition here in California are Latino voters and African-American voters. But all surveys have shown among those who are most against gay marriage, it is African-Americans and Latinos."

On the other hand, Hoffenblum says many white and upper-income voters, even within Republican circles, tend to be more tolerant of same-sex marriage.

Corey Cook, who teaches politics at the University of San Francisco, says gay marriage advocates are hoping the weddings of the coming days and weeks will put a human face on the issue.

"This time, people will be voting on whether the marriages that will have happened in California over 4 1/2 months should remain valid or not," Cook says. "And it's a very different question in that it involves the lives of real people who will have been married, legally married, in California."

The battle over the California Marriage Amendment is likely to be an expensive one, too, with both sides predicting they will need to raise at least $15 million to compete.

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