HAYWARD — With quiet vows and an eye toward November's Proposition 8 referendum, Stephanie Sue Spencer and the Rev. Arlene Nehring made their 16-year union a legal California marriage in Hayward's Eden United Church of Christ, where Nehring presides as pastor.
This "much-awaited day" wasn't quite the wedding they'd hoped for, but with voters going to the polls in a month in an election that could make their union unconstitutional, the couple felt it was better now than never.
"People are hedging their bets," said Todd Bove, a member of the church who married his partner of 10 years just a month ago.
Proposition 8 would cement the definition of marriage in California's constitution as a union between one man and one woman, overturning a state Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex unions earlier this year.
There is reason for gay and lesbian couples to be nervous here: Polls have remained close since Proposition 8 earned its spot on the ballot, and a SurveyUSA poll released last week showed the measure supported by 47 percent of respondents, compared with 42 percent opposing. The ceremony and its participants made no effort to duck the political questions that surround the union.
"Stephanie and Arlene have lived a 16-year loving relationship, a relationship tested by fires many could not survive," Ann Feaver, a longtime friend of the couple, said from the pulpit.
"Sixteen years ago, Stephanie and Arlene had only pockets of tolerance where their love could flourish. They could share their growing friendship, their growing affection, their love, their devotion with some, but not with others. And yet they prevailed."
The Rev. Wendy Taylor, who presided over the ceremony, added in her opening homily: "This marriage is being entered into neither as a beginning or an end. It is rather an expression of commitment already begun and will continue into the future."
In her reception toast, Kate Spencer, Stephanie's younger sister, recalled sitting in a bar 16 years ago, hearing about her sister's partner.
"Does this mean I have to become an activist now?" she asked at the time. "Sixteen years later, I am proud to be an activist against Prop. 8."
Spencer and Nehring met two decades ago while studying in Boston, and four years later made a personal commitment to each other.
"Even though I had married many, many couples, we were not part of a church where I could get married to Stephanie," Nehring said. "And I don't know that any of our families would have been there.
"Sixteen years ago there were just the two of us. No family, no church. Just us — and Jesus."
Saturday, a packed sanctuary welcomed the couple into legal marriage.
Taylor read the final pronouncement of marriage, "By the power vested in me," pausing, she continued, "and by the state of California," and a cheer went through the sanctuary as she pronounced the women "spouses for life."