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Preparations for the beach wedding had already begun when Kay Wiker and Daniel Holmes got the bad news from the county of Orange: Weddings aren't permitted on county beaches.

Wiker had known what elements he wanted at his wedding even before he fully realized, at the age of 18, that he is gay. He wanted a ceremony on the sand and under a full moon. His fiance, Holmes, was determined that the orchid-covered bamboo wedding arch, illuminated by candles held by each of the 150 guests and 100 tiki torches, would be part of the ceremony at Laguna's West Street beach.

Then, in a twist both sweet and bitter to the participants, the county allowed the event to go on as planned. The event, it seems, would be just a party--not a wedding--in the eyes of county officials, because the state doesn't recognize gay unions as legal marriages.

So on June 4, 1993, Wiker, 33, and Holmes, 27, exchanged rings while seven attendants stood by on the sand. Amid live cello and flute music, two ministers read prayers and watched as the San Juan Capistrano couple, in formal attire, recited their vows.

It was a ceremony that Wiker, aware of the apparent irony of the term, described as old-fashioned.

"It was what I've always wanted to do. I wanted to show Daniel how much I'm willing to make a commitment to him, and do it in front of our friends," he said. "My straight friends are impressed that we did it so openly. But there shouldn't be anything unusual in it. When two gay people want to show their commitment, they should be able to do so."

Commitment ceremonies have increased steadily in recent years, gay-rights advocates say, and are helping to fuel litigation efforts to gain state recognition of same-sex unions.

Recognition could come first in Hawaii, where gay-rights lawyers are confident of victory in a lawsuit that challenges state policies banning marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples. Such an outcome could put a national focus on the issue if gays go to Hawaii to marry and then return to their home states.

"If one state ultimately allows lesbian and gay marriages, there will be haggling in each state as to whether or not to recognize those marriages," said Rachel Bernstein, a lawyer with the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "And there may be cases just like there were with interracial marriages," when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that Virginia had to recognize the union of an interracial couple who had gotten married in another state.

Lawsuits seeking to force states to recognize gay unions have become a priority among many gay-rights lawyers. Legal actions are pending in Florida, Arizona and the District of Columbia, and last year the marriage policy in California was unsuccessfully challenged by two West Hollywood men who sued after the Los Angeles County clerk denied their application for a marriage license.

The Hawaii suit may fare best because that state's constitution was amended specifically to prohibit government discrimination based on sex, said Evan Wolfson of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has brought the suit.

In its defense, the state of Hawaii argues that children are best raised by their biological parents, that the state has a compelling interest in fostering procreation, and that allowing same-sex couples to marry would convey state approval of non-heterosexual orientation and behavior. A final decision is expected in a year or two.

New Mexico and New Jersey may also soon be targeted for marriage-license suits because those states' constitutions and case laws show potential for being challenged, said J Craig Fong of the Lambda fund.

Although no state recognizes gay unions, five California counties and several cities do. Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Laguna Beach are among eight municipalities that offer varying degrees of recognition of same-sex unions.

A pending California Assembly bill that would allow gay couples to register their relationships is modeled after the policies of these cities. Under the measure, which was introduced on Valentine's Day, gays would be able to will property to their partners, participate in family-only hospital visits and gain conservatorship rights in the event one becomes incapacitated. Similar legislation was introduced in Hawaii last month.

Gay-rights activists are optimistic about the California bill's chances but expect opposition, even though they say the measure, introduced by Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), falls far short of the benefits offered by marriage licenses.

"Quite frankly, these are limited rights, the barest sort of protection," said Richard Jennings, executive director of Hollywood Supports, a group that addresses HIV and gay issues in the entertainment industry. "The bill doesn't put gays on a par with married couples. Gays continue to have relationships, buy property together and look into the possibility of adopting children, but laws are not set up to address any of these."

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