SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – In an open challenge to California law, city authorities performed scores of same-sex weddings Thursday and issued a stack of marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

Applause filled the marble passages under City Hall’s ornate gold dome as jubilant same-sex couples breezed through brief ceremonies, promising to be “spouse for life” to partners some had loved without marriage for decades.

“Today a barrier to true justice has been removed,” said Gavin Newsom, newly elected mayor of the city considered the capital of gay America.

No state legally sanctions gay marriage, and it remains unclear what practical value the marriage licenses will have. The weddings violate a ballot measure California voters approved in 2000 that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

In San Francisco, many couples started their day with no idea they would be wed by evening, and joked about rushing to City Hall as word spread.

“There is a part that doesn’t feel romantic at all, but obviously it feels historic,” said Guillermo Guerra, 29, who married Andrew Parsons, 39, his partner of eight years.

The day began quietly with the morning nuptials of longtime lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon, 79, and Del Martin, 83, who were hurriedly issued a married license and were wed just before noon by City Assessor Mabel Teng in a closed-door civil ceremony at City Hall. The two have been a couple for 51 years.

By the end of the day, 87 marriage ceremonies were performed.

, and 95 marriage licenses had been issued.

As some couples wed, scores more crowded outside the San Francisco County Clerk’s office awaiting licenses, many arm in arm. One woman, wearing a white wedding dress and veil, encouraged couples to shout out their names and how long they had been together.

“I understand there are wrinkles that need to be worked out, but as far as I’m concerned, we will be married,” said Molly McKay as she and her partner of eight years, Davina Kotulski, stood at the clerk’s counter.

During one of the weddings, performed before TV cameras, the vows were rewritten so that “husband and wife” became “spouse for life.”

A conservative group called the Campaign for California Families called the marriages a sham.

“These unlawful certificates are not worth the paper they are printed on. The renegade mayor of San Francisco has no authority to do this,” said Randy Thomasson, executive director. “This is nothing more than a publicity stunt that disrespects our state law and system of government itself.”

San Francisco officials insisted the licenses are legally binding and would immediately confer new benefits in everything from health coverage to funeral arrangements.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer had no comment.

The gay marriages were timed by city officials to outmaneuver the conservative group. The group had planned to go to court on Friday to stop the mayor’s announced plans to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. But city officials struck first.

Lyon and Martin said after their brief ceremony that they were going home to rest and did not plan anything to celebrate. The couple seemed proud of what they had done.

“Why shouldn’t we” be able to marry? Lyon asked.

The mayor was not present at the morning ceremony but later presented Martin and Lyon with a signed copy of the state constitution with sections related to equal rights highlighted.

The two official witnesses were Kate Kendell, director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and former city official Roberta Achtenberg.

The conservative group fighting gay marriage has also sued to try to block California’s domestic partner law, which then-Gov. Gray Davis signed in September.

That law expands the rights of gay couples in areas ranging from health coverage and parental status to property ownership and funeral arrangements.

Across the nation, gay and lesbian couples headed to courthouses seeking marriages licenses Thursday as part of National Freedom to Marry day, which has been held on Feb. 12 since 1998.

The grass roots events are meant to raise awareness about marriage equality, said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a group working for recognized gay marriages nationwide.

In Wisconsin, gay and lesbian couples in six cities applied for marriage licenses Thursday, in part to protest a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit them from getting married or entering into civil unions.

Five gay and lesbian couples in Columbia, S.C., applied for marriage licenses Thursday but were denied.

And in Minneapolis, 50 same-sex couples gathered to sign up with the state’s domestic partner registry, saying the registry is an important step toward legally recognized marriages.

AP-ES-02-12-04 2150EST

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