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Wedding bells finally ring for Mission Viejo men

The couple, who made history by filing suit over the gay marriage ban, say, 'I do,' and then skedaddle.

June 18, 2008|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Christopher Hammer and Arthur Smelt have tried to marry so many times they lost count. But they have never strayed far from their Mission Viejo home.

"I've lived here all my life, so I fought my battle here," Hammer said.

Self-described homebodies, Hammer and Smelt, both 48, were the first California couple to file a lawsuit over state and federal law that barred gay marriage.

They were legally wed Tuesday morning at the Laguna Hills Civic Center, 11 years after their first commitment ceremony.

They were hardly alone. In a history-making day across California, 121 mostly same-sex couples were issued marriage licenses in Orange County -- four times the daily average.

While courthouses in large cities had bustling lines, in southern Orange County -- less than a mile from the gates to the Laguna Woods Village retirement community -- an atmosphere of low-key celebration prevailed.

The building, sporting a Spanish-tiled roof and sitting across from a shopping mall, was the smaller and humbler of the two facilities in Orange County offering marriage licenses and ceremonies.

A Unitarian Universalist congregation doled out congratulations and red roses to just-married couples, gay or straight.

At the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, several dozen couples, friends and families started streaming in just after 8 a.m., pulling marriage licenses and holding ceremonies on the courthouse steps, in the small chapel and in the historic courtroom inside the red granite and sandstone building.

Four protesters -- one dressed in a black robe with a shepherd's staff and a white cross reading "Repent," demonstrated outside.

Rod Warner, a same-sex marriage opponent carrying a sign that read "Homo Sex Is Sin," shouted, "Read the Bible!" and "Marriage is to be between a man and a woman!" at couples as they exchanged vows on the courthouse steps.

A gay and lesbian community group held a wedding cake and champagne reception.

Although some gay couples have traveled out of state or to San Francisco to exchange vows, Hammer and Smelt fought for what they say is their right to marry in their own community. After all, not too far from the Laguna Hills courthouse is where they had their first date: a steak and shrimp dinner at a Sizzler restaurant.

The couple first tried their hand at marriage at the Santa Ana courthouse 11 years ago. "They laughed us out of there," Hammer recalled. Instead, they had a commitment ceremony that day.

When San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses in 2004, they went back to the county seat. "I told them that if they're doing it in San Francisco we should be able to do it here," Hammer said.

After the Orange County clerk's office denied their application, they filed a lawsuit, becoming pioneers in the state and the fourth couple in the nation to challenge state and federal bans on gay marriage. A federal judge ruled against them and an appeals court passed on their case.

The day after the California Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex marriage, they returned to the Santa Ana courthouse but were told they would have to wait 30 days.

On Tuesday they were able to realize their goal. Wearing rumpled suit jackets and silk Mickey Mouse and Goofy ties, they exchanged vows and rings in a small ceremony. Smelt's mother and several friends watched intently, snapping photographs.

For something they had tried so many times before, they fumbled through the ritual, tripping on their words as they repeated the vows offered by a black-robed deputy county clerk.

"I have no idea what we're doing," Hammer confessed lightheartedly before holding both of Smelt's hands, looking into his eyes and going through the vows.

"Do you take this man, Arthur, to be your lawful wedded spouse?"

"I do," he replied. And it was reciprocated. They exchanged rings and kissed.

And when it was done, Hammer asked, "What do we do, just skedaddle now?"

"You go and enjoy your marriage," the clerk brightly replied.

They took off to a tiki-themed party in their backyard with friends.

But their outlook is not all rosy. They know the decision could be overturned by a ballot initiative in the fall election.

Smelt, the quieter of the two, remains skeptical. "We finally got it done," he said. "But we'll see if they stick to it come November."

--

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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