SAN FRANCISCO -- Despite accusations that the mayor is riding roughshod over the law, conservative groups failed to stop San Francisco from issuing same-sex marriage licenses Friday as hundreds more gay couples rushed to tie the knot before the opportunity slipped away.
All day long, the marble passages beneath city hall's ornate gold dome echoed with applause as one couple after another got hitched, promising to be "spouses for life." As of Friday evening, 559 couples had gotten married.
Gay couples received more good news when a judge denied a request by conservatives to immediately block the marriage spree and ordered attorneys to come back Tuesday and make their case. City officials, meanwhile, announced that they would keep special weekend and President's Day hours to accommodate the crowds who have flocked to San Francisco from throughout California and other states.
While it remains unclear what practical value the marriage licenses will carry, their symbolism was evident.
Emboldened by the weddings and the prospect of the nation's first legal same-sex marriages in Massachusetts on May 17, gay couples went to courthouses around the nation Thursday and Friday to demand the right to marry. They were quickly turned away.
The San Francisco marriage spree began Thursday with Mayor Gavin Newsom's blessing, drawing the ire of conservatives.
"Apparently, Mayor Newsom felt he's above the law and like a dictator, could simply dictate what the law should be," said Richard Ackerman, an attorney for the Campaign for California Families.
Hundreds of gay couples began lining up at 4 a.m. Friday, many of them rushing into town from other cities to get married before the courts could step in. San Francisco appears to be the first city in the nation to officially support same-sex marriage licenses.
"I'm not interested as a mayor in moving forward with a separate but unequal process for people to engage in marriages," Newsom said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "The people of this city and certainly around the state are feeling that separate but unequal doesn't make sense."
Mikko Alanne, 31, and his partner, Ari Solomon, 27, drove in overnight from West Hollywood, a six-hour trip.
"This is the first step towards the state recognizing gay marriage," Alanne said. Even though "we won't be recognized outside San Francisco, we are very excited."
The conservative groups wanted Superior Court James L. Warren to order the county clerk not to issue any more licenses to same-sex couples, and to void any licenses already granted. Warren said court procedures require them to return after the weekend to properly make their request.
California law, as approved by the voters in 2000, defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state officials have avoided comment, but Attorney General Bill Lockyer's spokeswoman did note that California's constitution provides broader equal-protection rights than other states.
The San Francisco ceremonies occurred as Massachusetts lawmakers ended in a stalemate after two days of impassioned debate. They are considering a ban on gay marriage in response to a ruling by the state's high court that said same-sex couples have the right to marry. The Legislature will reconvene March 11.
Around the country, other gay couples were turned away by court clerks as Thursday's "National Freedom to Marry Day" protests continued into Friday. The protests have been held every Feb. 12 since 1998.
In Richmond, Va., eight couples clutching pink "bride" and blue "groom" applications were denied licenses as legislators three blocks away debated a bill affirming Virginia's ban on same-sex marriages.
"It's a heartbreaker to be rejected," said Mary Gay Hutcherson, who was accompanied by her partner of 10 years, Yolanda Farnum. "But it was empowering. I think we deserve a license from the state of Virginia. And I think someday we will get one."
They also protested in Ohio, where Gov. Bob Taft signed a law last week making it the 38th state to officially bar recognition of gay marriages and the second to deny benefits such as health insurance coverage to unmarried employees' partners. The Ohio law is considered one of the most far-reaching bans in the country.
"It's so easy for people who have something to tell others they can't have it," said Christopher Hoffman, who was turned away in Columbus with his partner of 16 months, Joshua Jacob Wiley. "We don't want to be 'domestic partners.' We want to be husbands."