- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Nikki von Haeger and Lauren Mesnard became the first same-sex couple to marry in Nashville after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state’s gay marriage ban Friday.

The Davidson County Clerk’s Office began issuing marriage licenses around noon, and the couple was married in the office. They said they would have a ceremony with their families in a couple of months and then go on their honeymoon.

Von Haeger, who is 26 and works in a restaurant, told a reporter, “I’m just really excited to be able to marry the person I love.”

Mesnard is 25 and works for FedEx. After the ceremony she said, “Now it’s not like a special occasion to be normal.”

Same-sex couples across the state were going to county clerks’ offices to get marriage licenses on what many were calling “day one.”

In Tennessee, marriage between partners of the same gender was prohibited by state law and by a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2006.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said his office will “take the necessary steps” to implement the Supreme Court’s decision.

At the same time, he expressed strong opposition to the ruling, saying the court’s decision “not only changes the definition of marriage but takes from the states and their citizens the longstanding authority to vote and decide what marriage means.”

“Today, the Court redefined marriage by litigation, rather than by democracy,” said Slatery. “That said … it’s a decision by the highest court, and we respect the decision.”

In Memphis, 38-year-old Marci Charles, and 29-year-old Anna D’Olive, were among the first same-sex couples to get marriage licenses Friday.

Charles said they had a marriage ceremony two years ago on Memphis but now they are going to “make it legal.”

“It’s such a weight lifted off of us” Charles said of the ruling. “I’m jittery. I’m excited. I can’t believe it.”

Charles said the couple plans to move to Austin, Texas, soon, but they are glad they could get their license in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equal rights.

“Doing it in a city like this, where Dr. King fought, is important to me.”

The three couples who sued Tennessee two years ago to have their out-of-state marriages recognized said they were overwhelmed by all that was happening after the court ruled in their favor.

Valeria Tanco joked at a Knoxville news conference about crashing some of the weddings that were starting to happen around the state.

Her wife, Sophy Jesty, spoke of a feeling of immense relief at the decision.

“It feels to me like a huge weight has been lifted from our relationship. I feel free today, the most free I’ve ever felt.”

Tanco said they are especially happy their 15-month old daughter will grow up not feeling that her parents are different from anyone else’s.

“There are no words to know that Emilia has legal parents now and that if she were ever to find herself in a situation where she lost one of us, she would always have the other,” Tanco said.

After work Friday, about 300 gay rights supporters began converging on Nashville’s Public Square. The area already was decorated for a gay pride festival with rainbow flags hanging from the surrounding light posts.

A small group gathered on a busy corner cheering, blowing horns, and accepting honked and shouted congratulations from passing vehicles.

David Cellon was on the square with his husband, John Kohlburn. Cellon said he has been marching on Washington since the 1980s and never thought he would see this day.

“I never expected marriage equality, that was not our goal,” Cellon said. We just did not want anybody to pass laws against us or beat us up.”

Cellon and Kohlburn were married in Maine in January but said they might get married again in Tennessee. That’s because they have a friend who is both a judge and an Elvis impersonator who really wants to perform the ceremony.

Emily Logan was also on the square. She said she isn’t gay but is an ally who has fought for gay rights. That includes protesting a Tennessee bill that would have made it illegal for teachers to discuss homosexuality before ninth grade.

“I can’t believe that just five years ago I was standing here with tape over my mouth and a sign that said, ‘It’s OK to say “gay.”’”

After the impromptu rally, the group dispersed to join the gay pride festival, which was getting underway in the center of the square.

In West Tennessee, several dozen people attended a rally at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center on a steamy Friday afternoon. The rainbow flag had a strong presence, and rainbow colors were seen on wool hats, socks, T-shirts and suspenders of people at the rally.

Justin Smith, the Shelby County chair of the Tennessee Equality Project, told the crowd that he was in disbelief that the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.

“This has been a special day for justice, love and equality across the United States,” Smith said. “We are finally equal in the eyes of the law. Our love matters.”

Three couples participated in marriage ceremonies at the event. They included Jennifer Ballheimer and Alisha Wall, who held hands as former county Commissioner Steve Mulroy presided over the ceremony. Wall, 34, wore a T-shirt that said “Free Your Mind” and rainbow suspenders.

At the end of the ceremony, Mulroy introduced the couple as Mrs. and Mrs. Wallheimer, which drew cheers from the crowd.

Ballheimer, 35, said the couple had a ceremony recently in Memphis and they were keeping an eye on the Supreme Court to see when a ruling would be handed down. Once the ruling was released Friday morning, the couple went to the Shelby County Clerk’s Office to get their marriage license.

Ballheimer said she had yet to fully grasp the magnitude of the ruling and her place in history.

“We’re still kind of in shock and the adrenaline is going,” Ballheimer said. “I’m sure when we settle in this evening, once we just kind of take a breath, a lot of that will come into play as far as thinking about what it really means for everyone.”

Ballheimer said the couple plans to go to New Orleans and probably Hawaii for vacations and a honeymoon.

Wall is a teacher and Ballheimer is a mortgage broker.

Meanwhile, the ethics chief for the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention said he was disappointed but not surprised with the decision. Russell Moore is the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Moore said he does not expect the government to force pastors to perform same-sex marriages, but he is concerned for the religious liberties of people with strong religious beliefs that God has defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

___

Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this report from Nashville, Adrian Sainz reported from Memphis and Steve Megargee reported from Knoxville.

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