* New York begins marrying same-sex couples
* Boosts momentum for passage in other states
* Activists focus on federal marriage law
* Protesters vow retribution at next election (Recasts, adds details)
By Basil Katz
NEW YORK, July 24 (Reuters) - Wedding fever hit New York on Sunday, as hundreds of gay and lesbian couples married on the first day that same-sex marriage became legal in the state.
The marriages across New York, the nation’s sixth, and largest, state to allow gay marriages prompted calls from activists and officials to repeal a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had pushed for same-sex marriage, officiated personally at the marriage of two men belonging to his City Hall inner circle on Sunday evening at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence.
“Today in this city and in this state, history takes an important step forward by allowing every person to participate,” Bloomberg said as he married John Feinblatt and Jonathan Mintz, accompanied by their daughters at the podium.
“Therefore by the powers vested in me by the state of New York, I pronounce you both married.”
City officials said a record-breaking 659 couples, all five boroughs combined, braved a summer heat wave and long lines to obtain their marriage licenses.
“I think that is going to cause huge ripples and waves that will move marriage equality much more quickly for the rest of the country,” New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told reporters.
Quinn, who said she had begun planning her own wedding with longtime partner Kim Catullo, called the marriages a triumph for human rights.
“Marriage equality is alive and well in every borough in New York City.”
The day of marriages began in western New York, where two grandmothers became the state’s first legally wed same-sex couple, one month after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the law into effect. [ID:nN1E76L0G3]
Kitty Lambert, 54, and Cheryle Rudd, 53, from Buffalo, New York, were married just after midnight at Niagara Falls’ State Park’s Luna Island, with the traditional honeymoon capital Niagara Falls as a backdrop.
Lambert, an art gallery manager, choked up during the religious service, answering “Yes, yes, yes!” when asked if she was making the choice of her own free will.
“We’re achieving that real American dream to be treated like everybody else and be protected under all those laws,” Lambert said later.
The women danced on stage after being married to pop star Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory.”
In New York City, couples and their families and friends formed a line around the block to be married at Manhattan’s marriage bureau.
The first to be wed were Phyllis Siegel, 77, and Connie Kopelov, 85. The couple, who have been together for 23 years, emerged triumphant from the city clerk’s office, and Kopelov, in a wheelchair, brandished their marriage certificate as a crowd of supporters cheered.
“I am breathless,” Siegel said. “I am happy.”
Officials, expecting a rush of gay couples wanting to get married, initially set a lottery capping the number of marriages on Sunday to 764 couples but later accepted all 823 couples across all five city boroughs.
Douglas Robinson, 60, and Michael Elsasser, 56, said they were particularly happy because their two adopted sons, Zachary and Justin, were there to support them as they got married.
”The state recognizes us as a real family now,“ Robinson, who works at a bank, said, adding ”even though we’ve always known we were a family.
“The next step is to get full equal rights with the federal government,” Robinson said.
New York is the sixth and largest U.S. state to allow gay marriage. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia also do so.
Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey have approved gay civil unions, and gay marriage is specifically banned in 39 states.
Civil liberties activists say New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage sends a message to the U.S. Congress that it must repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
“New York is sending a powerful message to the rest of the nation today as we once again lead the way for equal rights,” said U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.
Groups of clergy and other opponents of the change staged a protest in front of Governor Cuomo’s Midtown Manhattan office, warning that lawmakers who supported same-sex marriage would face punishment in upcoming elections.
The Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law in 1996 by Democratic President Bill Clinton. U.S. President Barack Obama has said he would support a bill meant to repeal the law.
The law prohibits same-sex couples from receiving marriage-based federal benefits such as Social Security survivor benefits, health benefits and the right to file taxes jointly.
Officials estimate legalizing gay marriage would add some $400 million to New York’s strained economy over the next three years.
Reporting by Basil Katz in New York and Neale Gulley in Niagara Falls; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Walsh