MERCED — Merced resident Marissa Chavez's cell phone was ringing nonstop Wednesday morning, as tears of joy flowed down her face.
A barrage of text messages and social media alerts poured in about the two landmark Supreme Court decisions that legalized same-sex marriage in California, and supplied federal benefits to gay couples.
The rulings were emotional for the 23-year-old president of Merced Full Spectrum, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community group. "It's personal for me because I am affected by the discrimination LGBT persons are getting," Chavez said. "I had no idea how much importance I placed on marriage until this decision was made."
Chavez's group, along with other same-sex marriage supporters, celebrated the decisions in a rally Wednesday night at Bob Hart Square in downtown Merced.
In a slim 5-4 ruling, the court struck down California's Proposition 8, a measure which banned same-sex marriages. "Hearing that soon in California we'll be able to get married, it's huge to me," Chavez said. "I realized how important it really is and how much I do want that."
The Supreme Court on Wednesday also struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 federal law that prohibited married same-sex couples from obtaining certain benefits.
Leslie Johnston of Merced was among those in Merced County who married a same-sex partner in 2008, right before Proposition 8 passed in California. Although that union ended in divorce, Johnston said she holds out hope that she'll find love again and the ruling will allow her to say "I do" once more.
"Of course I want to get married again one day," said Johnston, a board member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in Merced. "It doesn't change my perspective and belief that marriage is a civil right."
Wednesday morning's rulings sent chills down the 34-year-old's spine. "My initial reaction was I felt something lifted off of me," Johnston said. "I felt validated, knowing that the Supreme Court recognizes us as a class of citizens."
Johnston credited Mer-ced's "straight allies" and supporters for standing with the LGBT community. "Without the support of the straight community, none of this would be possible," she said.
However, other people in Merced were not quite as enthusiastic about the news of the Supreme Court's decisions.
Dwight Amey, pastor at New Faith Tabernacle Church in south Merced, called Wednesday a "sad day" for America. "The world that I grew up in it died this morning," Amey said. "What they are practicing, according to the creator, is a sin just like adultery and fornication."
Amey, who has homosexual relatives, said he doesn't dislike gay and lesbian people. "I feel that God can deliver them," he said. "But God never intended for same-sex marriages to be made legal, and I can never accept what the Supreme Court has put on us. They shook their fist in the face of God."
Al Schaap, pastor at Gateway Community Church, agreed with Amey, in terms of the Bible recognizing marriage as between "one man and woman" despite Wednesday's rulings.
"The reality is what God says is still true," Schaap said. "Whether the Supreme Court says it's OK, it doesn't change what God has said. The flag of Jesus flies higher than the flag of the U.S."
However, Schaap said if same-sex marriage is legalized by the state, then couples deserve the same benefits as other married couples. "That's a matter of justice if the state says it's legal, then the state should be consistent in terms of state and federal benefits."
The debate over same-sex marriage in Merced has often become ugly, which Schaap said shouldn't have happened. "I'm sorry for the yelling that went on from our side of the issue," he said.
Andrea Cano, 35, a UC Merced student and Merced Full Spectrum member, agreed that both sides need to stop the negativity. "I choose to ignore it because it does nothing to further the cause," Cano said, adding that things are slowly improving. "People were afraid to hold hands in public, and now I see the town coming together."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.