California gay couples rush to wed as vote looms

SAN FRANCISCO/WEST HOLLYWOOD (Reuters) - Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples rushed to wed on Tuesday on the first full day that same-sex marriages were allowed across California, filling city halls with cheers -- and politics.

Gay marriage supporters see the move by the most populous U.S. state to allow same-sex weddings as an historic move long overdue, while opponents brand it a moral tragedy.

Both political sides consider California a trend setter, for better or worse, making its move in an election year. Looming over the flurry of weddings is the possibility of a sudden halt if a November state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage passes.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic rival Barack Obama have largely avoided the issue, finding common ground in supporting states taking the lead on the gay marriage. President George W. Bush firmly supports a U.S. constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

“Part of the reason I wanted to come today was to be a number, to be counted,” said Gretchen Kaufman in Oakland, California, after getting a license for a same-sex marriage.

Across the bay in San Francisco, same-sex couples, some dressed in matching gowns or tuxedos, marched triumphantly into the ornate City Hall, where balconies around the cavernous stone rotunda were divided into a dozen niches for ceremonies.

The city known for its large gay population married same-sex couples for a “Winter of Love” in 2004. A court threw out those unions but a larger legal battle led last month to the state Supreme Court overturning a law defining marriage as among a man and a woman.

California is the second state after Massachusetts to allow same-sex marriages and the first to offer to marry couples from any state. Officials here expect an economic boost from the new gay wedding industry, attested to on Tuesday by offers of gowns, caterers and jewelers to newlyweds.

Only a few countries offer gay marriage, and while at least one poll shows acceptance of such unions growing in the United States, more people prefer giving similar rights under a different name and 45 states have banned gay marriage.

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Many getting hitched on Tuesday professed politics as well as love and were thinking ahead to the November election, when the United States chooses a president and Californians vote whether to redefine marriage as only between man and woman.

“I believe the voters of California are going to do the right thing this November, and events like this are really important to show everyone how we are really the same as everybody else, and we are just looking to spend our lives together,” said Jeff Halpern, half of the first couple to get married in San Francisco on Tuesday morning.

Back in Oakland, former soldier Cal Gilbert-McNeal, who was first in line for a license with husband-to-be Greg McNeal-Smith, gave Obama tentative praise for his support of nationwide same-sex partnerships.

“Domestic partnership on a national level is a place to start,” he said.

Another woman getting married, Kathy Woofter, likened domestic partnership to the discredited policy of segregated schools. “It is ‘separate but equal,’ and well, we know where that one went. Barack Obama should know too,” she said.

Across California there was less urgency and lighter crowds than in San Francisco in 2004, given the court ruling and dozens more places to get hitched. By afternoon, the number of couples exchanging vows in some major centers slowed.

The University of California expects same-sex weddings will drive $684 million into the economy over three years.

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Many couples getting licenses did not plan to hold weddings right away.

Doreena Wong, whose bride-to-be Jennifer Pizer was a lawyer arguing the Supreme Court case, picked up a license in West Hollywood on Tuesday. But they ignored the profusion of tents set up on the lawn for quick weddings, saying they would hold a lavish ceremony of their own later.

“A lot of people are going to throw some extravagant parties. We are going to be one of them,” she said.

(for full multimedia coverage of same-sex marriage, go to the Webhere)

(Additional reporting by Amanda Beck in Oakland)

Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman