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Gay wedding lawsuits put off

In one case, judge marks group down on punctuation

SAN FRANCISCO -- Two judges delayed taking any action yesterday to shut down San Francisco's same-sex wedding spree, rebuffing conservative groups enraged that the city's liberal politicians had already married almost 2,400 gay and lesbian couples.

The judges took part in separate hearings. The second judge told the plaintiffs that they would likely succeed on the merits eventually, but that for now, he couldn't accept their proposed court order because of a punctuation error.

It all came down to a semicolon, the judge said.

"I am not trying to be petty here, but it is a big deal. . . . That semicolon is a big deal," said Judge James Warren in San Francisco Superior Court.

The Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund had asked the judge to issue an order commanding the city to "cease and desist issuing marriage licenses to and/or solemnizing marriages of same-sex couples; to show cause before this court."

"The way you've written this it has a semicolon where it should have the word `or,' " the judge told them. "I don't have the authority to issue it under these circumstances."

Until they write their proposed court order correctly, Warren indicated he would not order an immediate halt to the marriages of gays and lesbians that continued throughout the day across the street at City Hall.

Lawyers for both sides then spent hours arguing about punctuation and court procedures; the hearing was still continuing late yesterday afternoon.

Gay couples from as far away as Europe have been lining up outside City Hall since last Thursday, when city officials decided to begin marrying same-sex couples in a collective act of official civil disobedience.

In the other challenge to the marriages heard yesterday, Judge Ronald Quidachay said in San Francisco County Superior Court that he was not prepared to rule until at least Friday.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has said the city will keep marrying gays until the courts order a halt, and then will pursue a constitutional challenge through the courts. Newsom says the equal protection clause of the California Constitution makes denying marriage licenses to gay couples illegal.

"What trumps any proposition is the California Constitution," City Attorney Dennis Herrera said yesterday.

The conservatives want the courts to nullify the marriages and block the city from granting any more of the "gender-neutral" licenses.

The situation has intensified the national debate over whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry and enjoy the many benefits only married couples receive.

Quidachay told lawyers for the Campaign for California Families that they had not given the city enough notice to obtain an emergency injunction. "The court itself is not prepared to hear the matter," the judge said.

The conservative group said state law explicitly defines marriage as "a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman." The group also argues that San Francisco is violating a ballot measure approved by California voters in 2000 that said only marriages between a man and woman are valid.

"If the mayor can't read the law, we're hoping a judge can read it for him," said Randy Thomasson, the group's president.

The final word is expected to come later from the California Supreme Court, as both sides have promised to appeal.

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