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Video: Gay couples receive first marriage licenses in Merced County

Kathy Hunter and Polly Bernardo didn't have to wait in line for their marriage license on Tuesday -- although they've waited years to live legally as a married couple in California.

Even though the process of filing out the paperwork was relatively simple, the significance of the event was no less historic. After leaving the Merced County Clerk’s Office, the couple was greeted by deluge of cheers and applause from their supporters.

"We'll probably have more butterflies next Thursday when we're actually exchanging vows," Hunter said. "It's time."Hunter, 46, and Bernardo, 56, were one of five gay couples in Merced County who received their marriage licenses at the clerk's office on Tuesday, following the state Supreme Court’s decision allowing gays to wed.

Christina Borges, 30, and Benita Martinez, 42, of Le Grand, also received their marriage license Tuesday. Borges, who has been to the clerk's office with Martinez twice before to apply for a marriage license -- only to be rejected -- described Tuesday as an emotional moment. "You don't know what it's like to be turned away and told that you can't marry the person you love," Borges said.

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No protesters opposed to gay marriage were present at the clerk's office on Tuesday.

The couples were joined by more than 20 supporters, who stood holding colorful signs with slogans like "Marriage Equality and "Love Makes a Family."

Many of the supporters were members of Merced PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians). "It's a wonderful moment in history," said Jeanne Sanford, a 73-year-old retired teacher who came out to support the couples. “It's about time the LGBT community had equal rights. This is the civil rights cause of our time."

The small group supporting the couples also held a brief rally outside Courthouse Park, eliciting honks of support from several drivers passing by.

Hunter and Bernardo, who have been registered as domestic partners for four years, will exchange vows during a ceremony at University of the Pacific in Stockton June 26. Borges and Martinez will have a private wedding ceremony in August.

Like most areas of the state, the issue of same-sex marriage has not been without controversy in Merced County. Merced County Clerk Stephen Jones initially said his office would no longer perform weddings -- although later that day he reversed course.

Jones said the decision to stop performing weddings wasn’t made to avoid marrying same-sex couples. He said it was related to the state Supreme Court's decision to allow same-sex marriage only in that the new law could increase demand for his office to perform weddings.

Not everyone in Merced County, however, was celebrating the rights of gays to marry Tuesday. Many residents say they are also going to vote for a Nov. 4 ballot which would ban gay marriage by amending California's constitution.

Some like Ed Willman, 45, said they believe marriage should remain a traditional rite between a man and woman. "I have nothing against gay people, but I still don't think it’s right," Willman said.

Tony Ornelas, 70, said he believes that gay marriage is contrary to the teachings of the Bible."Some of them say God created them that way. No. God did not create them them way," Ornelas said. "I'm very much against it because God is against it."

Scenes similar to Merced County's took place around the state Tuesday, the first full day for legal gay marriage in California. From San Diego to Sacramento, couples readied their formal wear, local licensing clerks expanded their staffs and conservative groups warned of a backlash as the nation's most populous state prepared to join Massachusetts in sanctioning gay unions.

Unlike Massachusetts, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, California has no residency requirement, which is expected to encourage a large number of couples to head west to wed.

The May 15 ruling that overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage became final at 5:01 p.m. Monday, and clerks in at least five counties extended their hours to mark the historic occasion.

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