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November 12, 2008 at 3:56 PM EST

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Same-sex couples began marrying in Connecticut on Wednesday after a judge cleared the way, a partial rebound for gay-rights activists still enraged over the vote last week that cost them the right to wed in California.

Protests spread across the country over the loss in California, but in New Haven, bubbles and white balloons bounced in the chilly autumn air as well-wishers cheered the marriage of Peg Oliveira and Jennifer Vickery. They wed outside City Hall, next to a statue commemorating the Amistad slave ship’s struggle for freedom, less than two hours after a judge made gay marriage a reality in Connecticut.

Despite the roaring traffic and clicking cameras, “It was surprisingly quiet,” Ms. Oliveira said after the brief ceremony. “Everything else dissolved, and it was just the two of us. It was so much more personal and powerful in us committing to one another, and so much less about the people around us.”

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Oct. 10 that same-sex couples have the right to wed rather than accept a 2005 civil union law designed to give them the same rights as married couples. A lower-court judge entered a final order permitting same-sex marriage Wednesday morning.

“Today, Connecticut sends a message of hope an inspiration to lesbian and gay people throughout this country who simply want to be treated as equal citizens by their government,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, Bennett Klein.

There was no comparison between civil unions and marriage for Robin Levine-Ritterman and Barbara Levine-Ritterman, who obtained a civil union in 2005 and were among eight same-sex couples who sued for the right to marry.

“We didn’t do it with pride or joy,” Barbara Levine-Ritterman said of getting the civil-union license. “It felt gritty to be in a separate line.”

On Wednesday, however, she proudly held up the first same-sex marriage license issued in New Haven as about 100 people applauded outside City Hall. She and her betrothed, who held red roses, plan to marry in May.

“It’s thrilling today,” Barbara Levine-Ritterman said. “We are all in one line for one form. Love is love, and the state recognizes it.”

Massachusetts is the only other state that allows gay marriages. Like the highest courts in that state and Connecticut, the California Supreme Court had ruled that same-sex marriage is legal this spring, but after thousands such unions were conducted in that state California voters last week approved a referendum banning the practice.

Constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage also passed last week in Arizona and Florida, and Arkansas voters approved a measure banning unmarried couples from serving as adoptive or foster parents.

The California vote has sparked protests and several lawsuits asking that state’s Supreme Court to overturn the prohibition.

A group of Southern California activists have launched an effort to have simultaneous protests outside state houses and city halls in every U.S. state on Saturday. Word of the event has spread through social networking sites such as Facebook, and protests have been scheduled outside the U.S. Capitol and in more than 100 cities.

In Connecticut, celebrating couples, some carrying red roses, streamed into the clerk’s office to get their licenses.

Manchester Town Clerk Joseph Camposeo, president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, said clerks in the state’s 169 communities were advised by e-mail shortly after 9:30 a.m. they could start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

“The feedback I’m getting from other clerks is that we’re all at the ready, but no one really has a sense yet of what kind of volume we’re going to get,” he said.

According to the state public health department, 2,032 civil union licenses were issued in Connecticut between October of 2005 and July of 2008.

The health department had new marriage applications printed that reflect the change. Instead of putting one name under “bride” and the other under “groom,” couples will see two boxes marked “bride/groom/spouse.”

Connecticut voters could have opened the door to ending gay marriage last week by voting for a constitutional convention to amend the state’s constitution, but the measure was defeated.

Peter Wolfgang, the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, a gay-marriage opponent, acknowledged that banning gay weddings in Connecticut will be difficult but vowed not to give up. He condemned the high court’s decision as undemocratic.

“Unlike California, we did not have a remedy,” Mr. Wolfgang said. “It must be overturned with patience, determination and fortitude.”

The state’s 2005 civil union law will remain on the books, at least for now. Same-sex couples can continue to enter civil unions, which give them the same legal rights and privileges in Connecticut as married couples without the status of being married. Several states, including California, allow domestic partnerships or civil unions for same-sex couples.

Associated Press

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