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Couples rush to get married after state’s same-sex marriage ban overturned

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Gay couples rushed to Arizona courthouses to get married Friday, just hours after a federal judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage as a violation of the right to equal protection.

U.S. District Judge John Sedwick declared the ban unconstitutional early Friday and Attorney General Tom Horne said later in the morning that clerks could begin issuing marriage licenses immediately.

Horne – who had defended two state laws and a voter-approved constitutional amendment banning gay marriage – was widely expected to appeal the judge’s ruling. But he said Friday that a legal challenge now would be “an exercise in futility” since Sedwick based his ruling on recent decisions by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lightning-fast series of developments left some clerks scrambling to get the paperwork going for same-sex unions, while others in the state began issuing the licenses Friday.

Pima County Clerk of the Court Toni Hellon said her office started issuing licenses to same-sex couples right after Horne issued his directive, even though revised forms will not be available until Monday.

“We don’t want to hold people up until next week,” Hellon said. “People can mark out the words that don’t apply to them on the applications. On Monday, they can come back and get the official forms.”

In Maricopa County, college sweethearts Karen and Nelda Majors said they had been waiting 57 years for the chance to get married. Nelda Majors was the lead plaintiff in one of the two cases Sedwick ruled on Friday.

“Never would we have believed this would happen 57 years ago, because it was a time where you didn’t talk about it,” said Karen Majors, nee Bailey. “But it’s a wonderful day today.”

Despite the longstanding furor over gay marriage, opponents were nowhere to be found Friday at the Maricopa clerk’s office, where the mood was upbeat. Maricopa Superior Court Clerk Michael Jeanes had new license application forms ready to go and began issuing licenses almost immediately after Horne gave the green light.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton made municipal court judges available Friday afternoon to perform same-sex marriages in his conference room and signed the marriage certificate as a witness for one couple.

“Being a witness, that’s the easiest thing I could do,” Stanton said. “It’s great. I’m honored to do it.”

Phoenix Municipal Court Judge Kevin Kane, who officiated one of the weddings, said it was the first ceremony he has performed in his eight years on the bench.

“I was the first openly gay man on the bench, and people have asked me over the years if I would perform marriages for them,” Kane said. “I said, ‘I’m only going to perform marriages when it’s legal for everyone to get married.’

“And that day has come today, and I’m very honored and proud to be a part of it,” Kane said.

Horne’s decision not to challenge Sedwick’s ruling capped almost two weeks of legal activity that began Oct. 6, when the Supreme Court refused to hear appeals of lower-court rulings that overturned same-sex marriage bans in five other states.

A day later, the 9th Circuit struck down similar bans in Nevada and Idaho. Because Arizona is in the 9th Circuit, Sedwick on Oct. 9 asked parties in two same-sex marriage cases before him to argue whether the appeals court ruling applied.

He ruled Friday that it did, saying, “This court is bound by the precedent set by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.” He added that it is “also clear” that the Supreme Court “will turn a deaf ear on any request for relief from the Ninth Circuit’s decision.”

Opponents of same-sex marriage, including Gov. Jan Brewer, reacted to Friday’s events with disappointment. Brewer called Sedwick’s ruling “deeply troubling.”

“Courts should not be in the business of making and changing laws based on their personal agendas,” Brewer said in a statement. “It is not the role of the judiciary to determine that same-sex marriages should be allowed. Historically and traditionally, that power belongs to the states, and to the people.”

The statement made no mention of an appeal, however, and Brewer’s office did not immediately respond to emailed questions about what steps she is considering.

The Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative lobbying group opposed to gay marriage, said Friday that the center currently has no plans to challenge the ruling.

“We’ve had no discussions to that effect,” spokesman Josh Kredit said.

Still, he said the center will continue working in support of traditional marriage. He likened the same-sex marriage fight to the decades-long battle to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

“Forty-one years later, polls show a majority of Americans are pro-life,” Kredit said. “It’s not over. We’re going to work for a culture that sees the value of marriage between one man and one woman.”

But supporters of marriage equality welcomed the decisions from Sedwick and Horne.

“This is an exciting and historic day for Arizona,” said Jeremy Zegas, spokesman for Why Marriage Matters in Arizona, which supports same-sex marriage rights.

The group was hosting celebrations in Phoenix and Tucson Friday evening and organizing dozens of clergy members to begin officiating weddings across the state.

“It just shows that love is love and right is right,” Zegas said. “When couples make a commitment to one another and demand their constitutional freedoms, this is the result that we get.”

- Laurie Liles wrote this story in Washington; Cronkite News reporters Sierra Oshrin and Mackenzie Scott contributed to this report from Phoenix.