The news took the state by surprise: The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday afternoon lifted its stay on same-sex marriages, making California the 13th state to legalize gay marriage.
Within minutes, gay and lesbian couples were taking their vows before county clerks around the state.
The appeals court had previously said it would wait to lift the stay for 25 days after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week declined to rule on California's voter-approved gay marriage ban, essentially removing the last legal barrier to same-sex marriage.
The appeals court emailed its decision at 3:23 p.m. Friday. Twelve minutes later, Attorney General Kamala Harris said on Twitter: "On my way to S.F. City Hall. Let the wedding bells ring!" Shortly before 5 p.m., she married two of the plaintiffs in the Proposition 8 case, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier.
"I am thrilled that the (court) lifted its stay to allow same-sex couples to legally marry in California," Harris said in a prepared statement. "Gay and lesbian couples have waited so long for this day and for their fundamental right to marry. Finally, their loving relationships are as legitimate and legal as any other."
At 4:30 p.m. Friday, Sacramentans Nicola Simmersbach and Diana Luiz became the first local couple to marry at the Sacramento County clerk's office. They have been together seven years.
"I didn't think this would happen today," said Simmersbach, 50, a licensed family therapist. "This isn't really what we planned on wearing, but we're here."
"(We've been) fighting on the Capitol steps for this moment," said Luiz, 52, a homemaker.
The couple said they had planned to marry as soon as it was legal again in California – but they'll likely have another ceremony after Friday's.
Barring last-ditch legal challenges, the 9th Circuit's decision brings an end to the long battle over Proposition 8, which California voters approved in 2008.
More than 18,000 same-sex marriage licenses were issued in California during the few months it was legal in the state before the proposition passed.
The initiative was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker in 2010, a decision the 9th Circuit upheld – although the court also put same-sex marriages on hold until the ban's proponents could exhaust their appeals.
Opponents of gay marriage reacted angrily to Friday's decision, saying it was "a disgraceful day for California."
"We just received word that the 9th Circuit, without waiting for the Supreme Court's decision to become final and depriving us of our right to ask for reconsideration, has rushed forward to order same-sex marriage licenses," Andy Pugno, the Folsom attorney who authored Proposition 8, said in a written statement.
"This outrageous act tops off a chronic pattern of lawlessness throughout this case by judges and politicians hellbent on thwarting the vote of the people to redefine marriage by any means."
David Codell, legal director of UCLA Law School's Williams Center, a think tank on gender law issues, said the 9th Circuit had the right to lift its own order without waiting for the conclusion of the Supreme Court's usual 25-day waiting period.
The delay before a Supreme Court decision becomes final is meant to allow a case to be reheard, he said, but that is unlikely to happen with Proposition 8. Several legal experts have said Proposition 8 supporters had limited grounds for a rehearing.
All of California's county clerks, who operate under state authority, must now issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, he said.
Should clerks refuse, he said: "They would be judged in part by the California Supreme Court's explanation five years ago that the marriage laws are to be enforced in a uniform manner throughout the state."
On Wednesday, following the Supreme Court ruling, Harris said any county clerk who failed to perform gay marriages once the stay was lifted could face legal action.
Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda, Santa Clara and Ventura counties were among those issuing marriage licenses to gay couples by late Friday afternoon. Most of those counties were either not staying open late or only slightly extending hours.
Officials in Yolo and Placer counties said they would wait until Monday to begin performing same-sex weddings.
The governor ordered the Department of Public Health to issue instructions to the state's 58 counties on Friday afternoon that same-sex weddings could proceed, but official notification from the health department trickled out slowly.
"I expect it at any moment," said El Dorado County Recorder-Clerk Bill Schultz. "We are ready to go."
Sacramento County Clerk/Recorder Craig A. Kramer extended office hours until 7 p.m. Friday to accommodate the gay and lesbian couples who had waited for the chance to marry. By day's end, 19 same-sex couples – 12 female, seven male – were issued licenses.
The second couple to arrive in his office was Kim Kearsing and Abby Maurer, who had an unofficial wedding ceremony at Temple B'nai Israel in 2010 but had to wait until Friday to legally marry.
"I ran inside the house screaming happy," Kearsing, 43, said upon hearing the news of the stay being lifted.
Maurer's mother also showed up for the ceremony, carrying a cake from Freeport Bakery.
Same-sex marriage activists were both stunned and elated at Friday's turn of events.
"I'm a little emotional," said Julie Tindall of Marriage Equality USA. "This was not expected. It's exciting and surprising."
Tyler Edwards, 50, and his partner, 44-year-old Todd Lohse, had bought rings and were on their way to their wedding in 2008 when the Proposition 8 ban took effect.
Together for a decade, the couple have been waiting since then to marry. They said they would take their time instead of rushing to the courthouse.
"I was married to a woman for many years," said Edwards. "I have a daughter who's 31. I know what it is to be married and not to have a second thought about being normal.
"For me at 50 to have normal again means everything. I want for the whole community in a few years to have that feeling – not to see this right as anything special but as being an everyday thing."
Call The Bee's Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her in Twitter @AnitaCreamer.