LOS ANGELES (AFP) — Gay and lesbian couples will begin exchanging vows across California on Monday, one month after the state's highest court overturned a ban on same-sex marriage in a historic ruling.
The first marriage licenses are to be issued in a handful of districts from 5:00 pm (0000 GMT) on Monday, before an expected state-wide stampede by thousands of couples gets underway the following day.
The legalization of same-sex marriage in California is expected to create a mini-industry worth several hundred million dollars, as couples flock to the state from around the country to tie the knot.
Among the first couples to get hitched on Monday will be Robin Tyler and Diane Olson, who were the first plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the California Supreme Court overturning the ban last month.
At the same time in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom will officiate as veteran campaigners Del Martin, 87, and Phyllis Lyon, 83, are married after 56 years together. The couple made international headlines in 2004 when they were married in the first round of same-sex marriages San Francisco, only for their nuptials to later be declared illegal.
Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said Lyon and Martin had played a key role in the struggle for marriage rights.
"They and a small cadre of others sacrificed everything to build a foundation that got us to this historic place where we are today," she told the San Francisco Chronicle.
A University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) study said around 51,000 of the 102,000 same-sex couples living in California are expected to marry over the next three years, with a further 67,500 couples from outside the state expected to wed here during the same period.
Last month's landmark court ruling came after a long-running legal battle that erupted in 2000 when California voters approved a law declaring that only marriages between men and women could be legally recognized .
Opponents are seeking to force the issue back onto the agenda and have gathered enough signatures for a proposal calling for California to ban same-sex marriage to be added to ballot papers at November 4 elections.
The initiative comes as public opinion in the state appears more and more open to same-sex marriages. A recent poll showed 52 percent of Californians supported homosexual marriage compared to 41 percent who opposed it.
Both of the presumptive candidates in the November presidential election, Democrat hopeful Barack Obama and Republican Senator John McCain, are opposed to same-sex marriages but are against a constitutional ban on the issue.
Catholic church leaders in Los Angeles on Monday registered their disapproval of same-sex marriage while calling for gays and lesbians to be accepted with respect and sensitivity.
"The church cannot approve of redefining marriage, which has a unique place in God's creation, joining a man and a woman in a committed relationship in order to nurture and support the new life for which marriage is intended," Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and six auxiliary bishops said.
"When marriage is redefined so as to make other relationships equivalent to it, the institution of marriage is devalued and further weakened."