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Group wedding gives gays blissful start; Falls offer picturesque backdrop as dozens of couples define new law in human terms

What was touted as New York State's first gay group wedding went off smoothly Monday, as more than 200 people flocked to Niagara Falls State Park to watch 46 couples exchange marriage vows in front of a picturesque backdrop of the mighty cataracts.

"May your lives be filled with much love, many blessings and some tears, as well," John H. Percy Jr., president and CEO of Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., said while making a champagne toast to the couples. "I hope, 50 years from now, you will be able to tell people you got married in Niagara Falls."

As the glare of the national media spotlight began to fade, those involved have started to look at how the landmark law will change their everyday lives.

Falls tourism officials spoke of future advertising and public relations campaigns designed to host more gay and straight weddings. One newly married couple said they would pursue adoption.

And legal issues remained.

One couple said they would look for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 federal law that bars gay married couples in New York and other states from certain federal benefits.And an evangelical group, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, filed the first legal challenge to the state's gay marriage law in State Supreme Court on Monday.

The state has estimated that $400 million will be generated over the next three years from the passage of the gay marriage law, Percy said, and the Falls is looking to gain a portion of the economic benefits.

Percy called the group wedding a "kickoff to a sustained, long-term promotional and marketing campaign" that would focus on the gay and straight wedding markets.

Rick Crogan, president of the Main Street Business & Professional Association in the Falls, was married to partner Michael Murphy on Sunday night, and the two will have a larger reception in October. He said family members from London, Atlanta, Florida and West Virginia already have booked 12 rooms for that event.

"That would never come to the city if we didn't have this," Crogan said. "People want to look at what [economic benefits] we're going to see from gay marriage? That's just a snippet right now, and we have only sent out [a few] invitations."

Youngstown residents Mark Lynch and Thomas Korn were well aware of those economic benefits. Lynch, who owns a wedding planning business, married Korn at Monday's group ceremony.

The couple, clad in matching khakis, white button-down shirts and large rainbow sashes, posed as a half-dozen photographers snapped pictures of them holding hands and looking into each other's eyes by the falls.

Earlier, the ceremony was featured on NBC's "Today" show and covered by the iPad newspaper the Daily, and Percy was interviewed on a San Francisco radio show.

A diverse mix of couples arrived at the Falls in casual dress, formal attire and, in the case of two newlyweds, full-body motorcycle suits.

The age range was wide, as well. For instance, Lynch and Korn have been together for 29 years, the longest of any male couple, and one female couple had been together for 38 years.

"We work in New York State, live in New York State, love, pay taxes, and now we're invited to the party," Lynch said.

One couple said their day-to-day lives would not change much with the new law, except for the possibility of sharing insurance coverage. Melinda Millard and Judith Drennan of Kenmore said the state had "no right" to stop them from getting married. "We never thought that we would live to see this day ever," Millard said.

The couple bought wedding rings at the Allentown Art Festival two years ago, but when the legislation stalled in Albany, they decided to wear them, anyway.

Other couples were overcome with emotion when their marriages were made official.

"It's a lot more emotional than I expected," said Buffalo resident Candice Vacin.

" 'Validated' is really the word," said her partner, Sara Vacin.

Not all gay couples rushed to get married at the group ceremony in the state park. Crogan and Murphy wanted a smaller wedding near the edge of the falls. They were married Sunday night by City Court Judges Angelo J. Morinello and Diane L. Vitello.

"We said, 'You know what? It's really about the ceremony and really about us being committed to ourselves,' " Crogan said.

Crogan said he originally wanted to be the first one married in the Falls. Though he said both justices offered to witness his marriage at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, he didn't want to take away from activist Kitty Lambert.

Lambert and her partner, Cheryle Rudd, boasted of being the first gay New Yorkers to legally wed. They were married at 12:01 Sunday by Mayor Paul A. Dyster against the backdrop of the rainbow-lit falls.

One group turned out Monday to protest the new marriage law, led by Pastor Timothy Brown of Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Falls. State troopers stood between the roped-off wedding area and Brown's group of 11 that gathered to sing gospel hymns before and during the ceremony.

Brown said he opposed the involvement of city religious leaders from the First Congregational United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Niagara. Pastors at those churches participated in the ceremony but agreed to perform only civil, not religious, marriages.

"If it is civil, then why do you call it marriage and not a civil union?" the pastor asked. "Marriage, according to the Bible, is between a man and a woman."

Brown said the issue should be brought up for a vote, and the group challenging the law in court said the State Senate engaged in a "corrupt process" when it passed the law.

"We love each other like any straight couple would," said Taylor Butery-Weston. "I don't go to their weddings and tell them it's a bad idea."

e-mail: cspecht@buffnews.com