Gay couples line up to marry in California

SAN FRANCISCO — Dozens of couples in jeans, shorts, white dresses and the occasional military uniform filled San Francisco City Hall on Saturday as clerks resumed issuing marriage licenses one day after a federal appeals court removed the last obstacle to making same-sex matrimony legal again in California.

Although a few clerk’s offices around the state stayed open late on Friday, San Francisco was the only jurisdiction to hold weekend hours so same-sex couples could take advantage of their newly restored right, Clerk Karen Hong said.

A sign posted on the door of the office where a long line of couples waited to fill out applications listed the price for a license, a ceremony or both above the words “Equality=Priceless.”

“We really wanted to make this happen,” Hong said, adding that her whole staff and a group of volunteers came into work without having to be asked. “It’s spontaneous, which is great in its own way.”

The timing could not have been better for California National Guard Capt. Michael Potoczniak, 38, and his partner of 10 years, Todd Saunders, 47, of El Cerrito.

Potoczniak, who joined the Guard after the military’s ban on openly gay service was repealed almost two years ago, is scheduled to fly out Sunday night for a month of basic training in Texas.

“I woke up this morning, shook him awake and said, ‘Let’s go,” said Potoczniak, who chose to get married in his Army uniform. “It’s something that people need to see because everyone is so used to uniforms at military weddings.”

The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriage to return to the nation’s most populous state by ruling 5-4 on Wednesday that the sponsors of California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex unions lacked authority to defend the measure in court.

Also Wednesday, the Supreme Court overturned the federal law that prevented the government from awarding federal benefits to same sex couples, a decision with extra significance for military couples such as Saunders and Potoczniak.

“It scared me, honestly, before this all happened, that something could happen to me,” Potoczniak said, “Things like my body, who would take care of him, even just getting the health insurance…It gives me a lot more peace of mind to know that the Army is taking care of us.”

Also waiting to wed Saturday were Scott Kehoe, 34, and his fiancee, Aurelien Bricker, 24. After finding out on Facebook that the city was issuing same-sex marriage licenses Friday, the San Francisco couple rushed out to Tiffany’s to buy wedding rings.

“We were afraid of further legal challenges in the state,” Kehoe said.

Bricker is a French citizen living in the United States on a student visa, and the couple has contemplated moving to France once he completes his studies next year.

Now that the Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down and California’s gay marriage ban lifted, Kehoe can sponsor his husband for U.S. citizenship or permanent residency.

Hong said 81 same-sex couples wed in San Francisco on Friday just hours after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a brief order saying it has dissolved a stay it imposed on gay marriages while a lawsuit challenging the ban, known as Proposition 8, worked its way through the courts.

Within hours of the appeals court’s action Friday, the two lead plaintiffs who in 2009 sued to overturn Proposition 8, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier of Berkeley, became the first couple to marry in San Francisco in a hastily arranged ceremony.

The city, home to both a federal trial court that struck down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional and the 9th Circuit, has been the epicenter of the state’s gay marriage movement since then-Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered his administration in February 2004 to issue licenses to gay couples in defiance of state law.

A little more than four years later, the California Supreme Court, which is also based in San Francisco, struck down the state’s one-man, one-woman marriage laws.

City Hall was the scene of many more marriages in the 4 1/2 months before a coalition of religious conservative groups successfully campaigned for the November 2008 passage of Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to outlaw same-sex marriages.

Standing amid the beaming couples on Saturday, John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney of the advocacy group Marriage Equality USA looked like proud fathers. The men have been together 26 years, got married in February 2004, had their union invalidated six months later and then became one of the 18,000 couples estimated to have tied the knot in California before Proposition 8 was enacted.

“I don’t think getting a license means as much to anyone who hasn’t worked so long for it and fought so hard for it,” Gaffney said. “It’s been a very long engagement.”

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