By Teresa Carson and Shelby Sebens
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Gay and lesbian couples clamored to be among the first in Oregon to exchange wedding vows on Monday after a federal judge struck down a state ban on same-sex marriage, sparking a day of celebration amid flowers, cakes and honking car horns.
The ruling, which came just before a separate legal victory by gay matrimony advocates in Utah, was the latest in a series of court decisions in other states that if upheld will dramatically expand same-sex couples' marriage rights across the country.
"I'm speechless. We've waited for this moment for at least 10 years," said Christine Tanner, who with her partner joined three other Oregon couples in challenging a 2004 voter-approved state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.
The attorney general of the left-leaning state ultimately declined to mount a legal defense of Oregon's gay marriage ban against the lawsuit, leaving the conservative National Organization for Marriage to try defending it instead.
But U.S. District Judge Michael McShane denied the group legal standing last week, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday refused a request by the group to halt the proceedings while it challenged the decision on standing.
A short time later, McShane struck down Oregon's ban as unconstitutional, as expected.
"There is no legitimate state interest that would justify the denial of the full and equal recognition, attendant rights, benefits, protections, privileges, obligations, responsibilities and immunities of marriage to same-gender couples," he wrote.
Within minutes of the ruling, officials in at least four Oregon counties began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, some of whom had already lined up outside local courthouses in anticipation.
The scene was festive at the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland, where 96 marriage licenses were handed the first day to same-sex couples. Among them were Shawna and Emily Roach, who waited outside with their 2-year-old daughter as passing motorists honked car horns in support.
"Us being able to be legally married means she won't remember what it's like for discrimination to be legal," Shawna Roach said of their daughter.
Many of the first wave of newly licensed couples flocked to a Portland ballroom, where six makeshift alters were set up in anticipation of the ruling. One couple, Constance Ashbrook and Martha Landowne, were first wed in 2004 but saw their marriage undone by the courts after Oregon voters banned gay matrimony.
They took turns resting their heads on each others' shoulders and kissed while waiting for paperwork to be signed. They recited vows with two friends looking on, and a local judge pronounced the pair "finally" married.
Marriage rights have been extended to gay couples in 17 other states and the District of Columbia in a trend that has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits.
Brian Brown, a National Organization for Marriage spokesman, called McShane's ruling outrageous and said the group would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the order pending appeal.
But Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber sounded a note of finality in praising McShane's ruling, saying, "No longer will Oregonians tolerate discrimination against the gay, lesbian, and transgender community."
Hours later, another federal judge in Utah upheld the legality of hundreds of same-sex weddings performed in that state after a gay marriage ban was briefly lifted, only to be reinstated 17 days later by U.S. Supreme Court pending appeal. But the same judge put his decision on hold for 21 days.
(Reporting by Shelby Sebens and Teresa Carson in Portland, and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Andrew Hay, Cynthia Osterman, Matthew Lewis and Simon Cameron-Moore)