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Frustration turns to elation as gay couples marry in Nevada, ending dizzying legal fight

10/09/2014 09:06 EDT | Updated 12/09/2014 05:59 EST
LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Gay couples have started to get married in Las Vegas, a city filled with chapels that for them had been off-limits until Thursday evening.

Thomas Topovski cried as the Clark County clerk announced to cheers that gay marriage licenses would be issued, bringing same-sex unions to the marriage capital of the world amid a flurry of court decisions this week that tore down legal barriers nationwide.

Topovski and Jefferson Ruck, his partner of 14 years, returned to the marriage bureau in Las Vegas on Thursday after standing in line for hours the day before.

About 10 same-sex couples were waiting as the announcement came shortly after 5 p.m.

"It's amazing. This is it," said Theo Small as he stood next to his partner, Antioco Carillo, and looked down at their marriage license, the first issued in Las Vegas.

"We're walking on clouds," Carillo said. "This is unreal."

For gay couples in Nevada, the licenses ended long-felt frustration that increased by the day as they watched legal wrangling go in favour of others elsewhere, while they could do nothing but wait.

A Supreme Court decision Monday that denied appeals from five states seeking to retain their bans on same-sex unions effectively made gay marriage legal in about 30 states.

Days of weddings, court rulings and confusion followed, and gay couples in West Virginia began receiving marriage licenses Thursday — hours ahead of Las Vegas.

"Nobody is more frustrated than I am," said Clark County Clerk Diana Alba, apologizing to a handful of gay couples at the Las Vegas marriage license bureau.

Shortly after, however, a judge enforced a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that allowed her to start issuing licenses.

State Sen. Kelvin Atkinson wed Sherwood Howard were married on the steps outside the bureau, becoming the first gay couple in Las Vegas to wed. Atkinson, during an emotional legislative debate on same-sex unions last year, stood before the chamber and announced that he is gay.

A few feet from the crowd that had gathered to witness Atkinson and Howard's union, Dave Parry married Morgan Floyd under a tree just outside the bureau's doors.

"Oh, my, gosh. It's done," Parry said, before embracing Floyd.

"It's nice not to be a second class citizen anymore," he said. "It's been a long time."

About 430 miles north, Kristy Best and Wednesday Smith became the first same-sex couple in the state to get a license.

Best said in a telephone interview that she and Smith were surprised to get their license when they showed up at the Carson City marriage office with the $75 filing fee they borrowed from Smith's mother. They plan to be married Saturday with a gathering of family and friends.

"We went to see what would happen, and they gave us the license," Best said. "I feel amazing. So happy. Love doesn't discriminate, so why should we?"

"Nothing," Smith said, "stands in the middle of true love."

The hopes of gay couples in Nevada had been in limbo since the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday that gay couples' equal protection rights were violated by same-sex wedding bans in Nevada and Idaho.

The ruling triggered a Supreme Court memo that left Idaho gay couples in tears after they had gathered early at courthouses hoping to marry. A clarification hours later said the ruling did not apply to Nevada, but clerks didn't budge.

The last Nevada challenge was dropped early Thursday, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals again declared that its ruling allowing same-sex couples to marry in the state was "in full force and effect." Clerks then waited for a judge to enforce the decision before issuing licenses.

Todd Larkin, president of the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, issued a statement late Thursday that said his group plans to ask the entire 9th Circuit for a rehearing of Tuesday's ruling by a three-judge panel, and ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

"Man-woman marriage is constitutional," Larkin said. "The coalition is confident that, in the end, the constitutionality of man-woman marriage will be upheld."

Shortly after the flurry of weddings, however, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Democratic Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto released a statement that declared "this action brings finality to the issue of same-sex marriage in Nevada."

Daniel Carroll and Dayvin Bartolome didn't want to waste any time seeking out a chapel. They stood outside the marriage license bureau calling prospective witnesses and contemplating the site of their wedding Thursday night.

"You want to get married by Elvis?" Bartolome, 35, asked.

If Elvis wasn't free, who else would they want officiating?

"Celine," Carroll said, laughing.

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Associated Press writer Ken Ritter contributed to this report.

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