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Gay couples march on Manhattan

Gay marriage supporters line up outside City Hall in New York.
Gay marriage supporters line up outside City Hall in New York.

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Multnomah County, Oregon begins to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples.
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples rallied for marriage rights in Manhattan Thursday while about 40 couples lined up in the rain outside New York City Hall seeking to persuade Mayor Michael Bloomberg to issue them marriage licenses.

They chanted, "Marriage is a civil right -- gay, straight, black, white," in a demonstration that lasted 90 minutes. New York Marriage Now organized the rally, and a coalition of about a dozen groups sponsored it.

Several couples made it to the clerk's office, where they received a letter that said, in part, "Thank you for visiting. We are unable to grant your request. New York state law doesn't authorize this office to grant marriage licenses."

New York Attorney Genera Eliot Spitzer Wednesday had urged local officials to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples until the courts can rule on the matter. (Full story)

But outside City Hall, Connie Ress of the group Marriage Equality, said, "We also want to hear from our mayor. ... He has not yet spoken out on this issue. We want him to take a stand."

Rabbi Nancy Wiener said she and her partner, Judith Tax, had tried many options to get their relationship recognized, including giving each other power of attorney.

"If licenses can't be issued today, then we want the discussion to continue," she said.

Explaining why they want to marry, Tax said, "We love each other, and we've been together almost 18 years now."

Wiener added, "We have all sorts of legal papers, but individually none of those cover us as marriage would."

Charges and legal arguments

About 25 miles north of New York City, as he had promised a day earlier, Nyack Mayor John Shields and his partner, Bob Streams, led other same-sex couples Thursday to the Orangetown clerk's office to apply for marriage licenses.

Town Clerk Charlotte Madigan refused to grant them, instead handing them a statement that said she was not authorized to do so.

Shields had said that if the licenses were withheld, he would file a lawsuit, contending his constitutional rights were being ignored. He is working with attorney Norman Siegel, former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Siegel's law partner, Steve Hyman, in the case.

"The phones have been ringing off the hook with people wanting to get married, some as early as tomorrow," Shields said Wednesday. "I still maintain it's legal and the right thing to do."

Spitzer said the state's marriage laws refer to unions of men and women, but they "raise important constitutional questions involving the equal protection of the laws." He also said same-sex marriages and civil unions performed in other states should be recognized in New York under state court precedent.

Spitzer warned that officials "subject themselves to potentially serious sanctions" if they ignore his advice. But he said he would leave decisions about whether to bring charges against officials who perform same-sex marriages to local prosecutors.

That is what happened to New Paltz Mayor Jason West, who began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples last week in his Hudson Valley village. He pleaded not guilty Wednesday to misdemeanor charges that he broke the state's domestic relations law. (CNN Access: Mayor: Gender irrelevant in marriage, Mayor vows to keep marrying same-sex couples)

West told supporters after the hearing that same-sex marriages are an issue of civil rights.

"What we're witnessing in this country today is the largest flowering of a civil rights movement this country has seen in a generation," West said, adding that the law is gender-neutral.

Michael Adams, director of education and public affairs for the gay rights group Lambda, said, "We view the attorney general's opinion as a step forward because in fact what he said is that under the law as it's written, same-sex marriages are not permitted, but that law raises serious constitutional questions that will be resolved by the courts."

Adams also said New York is the first state to acknowledge it will recognize marriages from other states.

Actions in other states

In Portland, Oregon, Multnomah County officials began handing out marriage licenses Wednesday to gay and lesbian couples after County Attorney Agnes Sowle said refusing to do so would violate the state constitution. (Full story)

The county was to continue issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples when the county office reopened Thursday.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has asked the state attorney general to look into the legality of the marriages, but he will not seek an injunction to stop them in the meantime, said spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn.

Attorney General Hardy Myers is expected to have an answer within days, she said.

Myers spokesman Kevin Neely described Oregon's marriage law as "ambiguous." It defines marriage as "a civil contract entered into in person by males at least 17 years of age and females at least 17 years of age, who are otherwise capable."

Massachusetts brought the issue to the forefront in November, when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state had failed to identify any "constitutionally adequate reason" to forbid gay or lesbian couples to marry. The court has ordered the state to begin granting same-sex licenses by May 17.

San Francisco officials began issuing same-sex wedding licenses last month under orders from Mayor Gavin Newsom, who cited the state constitutional ban against discrimination.

The issue has landed in the California Supreme Court, which refused to stop or invalidate the marriages already performed. But the court gave opponents until Friday to submit legal briefs against gay marriages.

Last week, President Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to two people of the opposite sex but said it should leave open the possibility that states could allow civil unions. (Bush calls for ban)

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, said Wednesday that the Constitution needs to be changed to ensure that the traditional definition of marriage would not be overturned by court rulings. (Full story)

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