(Adds national poll, background, protester comments)
By Peter Henderson
SAN FRANCISCO, June 16 California begins
marrying gay and lesbian couples on Monday afternoon in a step
likely to challenge other states where laws define marriage as
only between a man and a woman.
A state Supreme Court decision last month overturning a ban
on gay marriage has already produced one major change: marriage
licenses will no longer list bride and groom but rather Party A
and Party B.
The landmark ruling goes into effect at the close of
business on Monday, when San Francisco and West Hollywood, both
known for a major gay population, will marry one couple each.
Dozens of other couples will marry in a handful of smaller
county offices open to all in the evening.
California is the second state to marry same-sex couples
after Massachusetts, but it is the first ready to grant
licenses to couples from any state. Gay marriage is rejected by
45 states, but New York will honor California unions.
"If marriages performed outside of New York are going to be
recognized, I'm sure it won't be too long before New Yorkers
will be able to be married in their own state. So already it is
having an impact that crosses the impact to the Atlantic
Coast," said Star Trek's Mr. Sulu -- actor George Takei -- who
is marrying longtime partner Brad Altman.
"We are boldly going where no one has gone before," he
said, jokingly echoing the opening of the TV series.
Many states and countries allow domestic partnerships
though a relative few recognize gay marriage, including
Massachusetts, Belgium, Canada, Spain and the Netherlands.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose 2004 decision to
marry gay and lesbian couples helped unleash the court battle
ended last month, on Monday will marry Del Martin and Phyllis
Lyon, an octogenarian pair who have been together more than 50
years and were the first married at City Hall four years ago.
Around the most populous U.S. state, with more than 36
million people, a few marriage offices will start ceremonies
after 5 p.m. (8 p.m. EDT/0000 GMT) and work into the evening.
Hundreds of volunteers have been deputized to marry couples in
tents and on courthouse lawns.
Opponents aim to fight back in November when Californians
will vote whether to change the state constitution to define
marriage as between a man and a woman. Los Angeles' seven
Catholic bishops on Monday said marriage "has a unique place in
God's creation, joining a man and a woman."
Outside of the county clerk's office in Oakland,
California, across the bay from San Francisco, a lone protester
stood next to a camper covered in anti-gay marriage placards
and criticized the state Supreme Court.
"I'd be of a mind to tar and feather them," said Ronald
Acceptance of homosexual marriage has grown in the United
States and abroad, although less than a third of Americans
responding to a recent CBS poll say they should be legal. Over
a third oppose gay marriage.
It was an issue in the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign but
University of Southern California law professor David Cruz said
gay marriage had not been a major topic this election year.
He predicted that the practicalities of married gay couples
moving from California to other states would spark change.
"People's attitudes are already changing, and what will
change public opinion in favor of same-sex marriages further is
knowing same-sex couples and seeing them live their lives like
other married couples," he said.
(Additional reporting by Amanda Beck in Oakland and Syantani
Chatterjee in Los Angeles)
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Doina Chiacu)