Hundreds of gays exchange vows in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO - Gay and lesbian couples from across the country answered this city's Valentine's Day invitation to wed in an unprecedented spree of same-sex marriages that has challenged California law and sent conservative groups scrambling for court intervention.

About 300 people lined up yesterday morning outside City Hall to secure marriage licenses - and then take each other as "spouse for life" in brief vows that have given San Francisco's seat of government the feel of a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

Rodney Vonjaeger and his partner, John Kussmann, both 37, drove overnight from San Diego and arrived at 3 a.m. yesterday.

"We decided if there was ever an opportunity, we would do it, so the drive wasn't even a consideration," Vonjaeger said as he waited in line yesterday. They set the hotel alarm for 8 a.m., "but we were up at 7 because of the excitement."

It was the third straight day that officials issued the licenses to hundreds of gay and lesbian couples. The response has been so overwhelming that nearly 200 city officials, led by newly elected Mayor Gavin Newsom, have volunteered to pitch in, from sheriff's deputies providing security to clerks processing the licenses.

Across the country, other gay couples didn't wait for a marriage license. About three dozen same-sex couples exchanged vows at Philadelphia's LOVE Park yesterday as part of a "mass commitment ceremony" organized by a gay-friendly church.

Led by a minister, the couples gathered in front of Robert Indiana's famous "LOVE" sculpture - a rainbow flag draped under it - and repeated their vows.

"If they're not going to let us get married, we're going to do it anyway," said Dan Farley, shortly after exchanging silver rings with his partner, John McCann.

Despite legal challenges from advocates of traditional marriage, San Francisco's wedding march is expected to continue through the long holiday weekend.

By late Friday, city authorities had officiated at 665 same-sex weddings in City Hall, and issued still more licenses. City officials said they would welcome license applications yesterday, today and tomorrow - Presidents Day - to accommodate couples that have flocked here from as far away as New York.

On Friday, a judge denied a petition to block more licenses from being granted. Two separate groups of opponents were asked to return Tuesday for a hearing.

"No one made the mayor of San Francisco king; he can't play God. He cannot trash the vote of the people," Randy Thomasson, director of the Campaign for California Families, said at a news conference in Los Angeles.

Aside from the lawsuits, the newly married couples might face other obstacles. After a marriage license is recorded by county officials, it is sent to the state Office of Vital Records. A ballot initiative approved by voters in 2000 said the state would recognize marriages only between a man and a woman.

San Francisco officials have insisted the licenses they have handed out are legally binding, although they are revised to be "gender-neutral." But a deputy city attorney acknowledged that the state might not accept them.

San Francisco appears to be the first city in the nation to officially support same-sex marriage licenses; city clerks in Arizona and Colorado in 1975 issued licenses to gay and lesbian couples that were later revoked or declared void.

Emboldened by the prospect of the nation's first legal same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, gay couples went to courthouses around the nation Thursday and Friday to demand the right to marry. They were quickly turned away.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that it is unconstitutional to bar gay couples from marriage. Under the decision, the nation's first legally sanctioned gay marriages are scheduled to begin in mid-May.

Lawmakers are proposing a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and the Legislature resumes its deliberations of amendments March 11.

Some American couples headed to Toronto yesterday, where gay marriage is legal.

"Canada as a country is more accepting and tolerant; we didn't give it a second thought," said Robin Hanson, a St. Louis doctoral student who was marrying her girlfriend, Susan Levin.