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To Love & To Cherish

It was a wedding like any other, with flowers and music, smiles and tears, prayers and vows. The couple had written their own vows, full of love and adventure, sickness and heath, laughter and silliness, family and friends, passion and compassion.

When they exchanged unique, flexible rings, the minister conducting the ceremony, the Rev. Dorothy Brooks, deadpanned, "The symbolism is wonderful" to a big laugh from the standing-room crowd at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ashland.

And then Fanda Bender and Sheila Gam kissed each other and walked up the flower-strewn aisle married, at least in their eyes and the eyes of their families and some 200 well-wishers.

Theirs was just one in a series of gay and lesbian weddings performed Saturday by the Rev. Pam Shepherd, the church's pastor, and several retired ministers. The weddings were part of national protests against the Defense of Marriage Act and various state measures denying marriage equality to homosexual Americans.

"We're trying to celebrate their spiritual union as God-given and as something neither the state nor anyone else can take away," Shepherd said.

Under the DOMA, no state need recognize same-sex marriages recognized by another state, and the federal government may not treat same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose. The act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Many states have since banned gay marriages after campaigns by church groups citing Old Testament condemnations of homosexuality.

On a chilly, sun-drenched morning, the Rogue Valley Peace Choir sang in the parking lot, a photographer offered wedding portraits, and tables were manned by volunteers from groups such as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and the Queer Resource Center from Southern Oregon University.

"It's important for many reasons," said Bender, of Talent, shortly before wedding her partner of 31 years.

"Sheila was in the hospital, and a doctor we didn't know came in and made me leave the room to examine her. Our domestic partnership is recognized in Oregon but not elsewhere."

Only Massachusetts and Connecticut allow same-sex marriage, although five states, including Oregon, recognize some form of same-sex union and provide gay couples with some, but not all, the rights enjoyed by man-woman couples.

Gam says the marriage is equally important for spiritual reasons.

"It is a change to share the radically inclusive love of God," she says.

Before Gam and Bender's wedding, Lisa Spencer and Karen Wennlund, of Ashland, were married by Shepherd in a ceremony with flowers and flute music and David Whyte's poem "The True Love," which begins: "There's a faith in loving fiercely the one who is rightfully yours/especially if you have waited years and especially if part of you never/believed you could deserve this loved and beckoning hand held/out to you this way."

Spencer and Wennlund sang in two-part harmony and walked up the aisle to Mendelssohn's Wedding March.

Later, Mollie Owens and Mary O'Kief, both of Ashland, tied the knot.

"Mary and I have been together 28 years," Owens said after the ceremony. "We own a home and have jobs (she's a teacher) and pay taxes. We volunteer. We bake cookies. Yet our relationship is not recognized.

"It's an issue of civil rights, and it's a matter of being able to celebrate with my family in my church."

Morning passed into afternoon with more couples awaiting their vows, including Ernie Caswell and Dennis Day, of Phoenix, and Toni Figueiredo and Jaci Hillmann, of Ashland.

Shepherd said that the church has quit signing marriage licenses for anybody until they can sign them for everybody. Gay couples in Oregon may file jointly on insurance forms and enjoy hospital visitations and certain rights relating to the deceased partner. But under the Oregon Constitution, the only kind of marriage legally recognized is that between one man and one woman.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Sheila Gam and Fanda Bender of Talent are married by the Rev. Dorothy Brooks at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ashland Saturday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch