TOPICS > Politics

Same-Sex Couples Begin Marrying in California

June 17, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples filled county clerk offices across California Tuesday and exchanged marriage vows on the state's first full day of legal same-sex nuptials. Spencer Michels reports on the day and the legal battles ahead.
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Late this morning, 64-year-old Seth Lawrence and 46-year-old Scot Hammond, a gay couple who’ve been together 14 years, stepped up to the city clerk’s office in San Francisco and applied for a wedding license.

It was their second. They were among 4,000 same-sex couples married four years ago after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, on his own, decreed gay marriage was legal and renewed the national debate on the issue.

But those marriages were nullified when courts ruled they violated a California law passed by 61 percent of the voters in 2000 that banned same-sex marriage.

Now Hammond and Lawrence can marry again, thanks to a State Supreme Court decision declaring that 2000 law unconstitutional and making California the second state after Massachusetts to legalize gay marriage.

SETH LAWRENCE: I wish my folks were here.

SPENCER MICHELS: At their home near San Francisco’s Castro district, they are planning their new wedding, set for July 6th.

SETH LAWRENCE: The cake is ordered.

SPENCER MICHELS: Complete with invitations, a wedding cake, and a personally written ceremony. The roller coaster ride of court decisions and ballot measures has not deterred them from moving ahead.

SCOT HAMMOND: A lot of people who are in hiding will come out and will show that we do have long-term relationships.

SETH LAWRENCE: I think the longer that the world sees us as married people, and that Massachusetts has not fallen into the sea, and neither will the state of California, I think they’ll start realizing that there’s absolutely no difference.

Clash between religion and politics

Bill May
Catholics for the Common Good
Marriage between a man and a woman is a reality. And what same-sex marriage does is it obscures that reality from the public at a time when people are becoming more and more indifferent to marriage. Four out of ten children are born out of wedlock.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mayor Newsom has staked his political future on the issue. He presided last night at the first legal same-sex marriage in San Francisco between Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, two lesbian activists in their 80s. They had also been married in 2004.

GAVIN NEWSOM, Mayor of San Francisco: This effort is by no means complete, but we're very proud of today and the next week, two, and three. You're going to have tens of thousands of couples all across the state of California, not just here in San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS: But the legal status of thousands of same-sex couples could be affected by an initiative on the November California ballot. It states that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

As a constitutional amendment, if it passes, it would supersede the Supreme Court's decision and ban gay marriages.

Those pushing the ballot measure have argued that traditional marriage between a man and a woman is degraded when gays and lesbians are allowed to marry. Besides, they say, the financial benefits of traditional marriage are already available to domestic partners.

Bill May, the chairman of Catholics for the Common Good, has been working for the constitutional amendment, which gathered 1.1 million signatures to qualify for the ballot.

BILL MAY, Catholics for the Common Good: Well, marriage between a man and a woman is a reality. And what same-sex marriage does is it obscures that reality from the public at a time when people are becoming more and more indifferent to marriage. Four out of ten children are born out of wedlock.

We've got to be promoting marriage between men and women. And this ruling by the judges makes it illegal for the state and schools to do that.

Marriage license future unclear

Scot Hammond
Gay man marrying in San Francisco
We have a motto that says: We'll do it until they get it right, and until we get equal protection and equal rights. Hopefully, in 15 years from now, we'll all look back at this and wonder what the whole fuss was all about.

SPENCER MICHELS: Today at San Francisco's City Hall, 250 marriage licenses were issued, and the city clerk's office expanded its hours and began performing an expected 500 wedding ceremonies a day until the demand recedes.

Around the state, thousands of gay couples -- many from other states -- were expected to get married. In Massachusetts, only residents can marry.

Whether other states will recognize California's same-sex marriages is an open question. And what will happen legally to those marriages if the ban passes is also unclear.

SCOT HAMMOND: Well, hopefully they won't annul it again. They've done it before.

SETH LAWRENCE: It's not clear. It's not clear yet. I'm not worried, because we've been together 14 years. And in case the very worst happens, we'll go on fighting.

SCOT HAMMOND: We have a motto that says: We'll do it until they get it right, and until we get equal protection and equal rights. Hopefully, in 15 years from now, we'll all look back at this and wonder what the whole fuss was all about.

SPENCER MICHELS: Public opinion surveys show the measure extremely close. An L.A. Times poll shows the measure narrowly winning, but a recent Field Poll indicates that, for the first time, a slim majority of Californians now seem to favor extending marriage to same-sex couples.

People supporting the gay marriage ban admit there are unresolved issues should the measure pass, especially whether marriages performed between now and election day will remain valid.

GAVIN NEWSOM: So I think that is a very ominous initiative. It's an extension of what George Bush tried to do a few years ago. And these are his surrogates trying to write discrimination into the Constitution.

SPENCER MICHELS: Not every county was as comfortable with gay marriage as was San Francisco or Los Angeles. In some conservative rural areas, county clerks decided not to perform any marriages, gay or straight, at least for now.

Meanwhile, the traditional June wedding season in San Francisco and a few other cities is booming like never before, even though this year it isn't so traditional.

At the same time, spirited and expensive campaigns costing an estimated $35 million for and against the constitutional ban on gay marriage are revving up. The amendment will be on the same ballot as the presidential election, as will a similar measure in Florida.