NEWARK — In what he called one of the "deepest honors of my life," Newark Mayor and New Jersey Senator-elect Cory Booker officiated the weddings of nine gay, lesbian, and straight couples under the gilded dome of City Hall shortly after midnight on Monday.
More than 200 supporters, friends of the brides and grooms, and marriage equality activists gathered in the rotunda to see the 12:01 a.m. ceremony, which Booker's office organized after a trial-court judge ruled last month that same-sex couples could begin marrying in New Jersey on Oct. 21.
For Booker, who was elected to the Senate in a special election last week to succeed the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, marrying the nine couples Monday will be one of his last acts as mayor of Newark. "We got this in under the wire," he told reporters after the event, saying he felt "thankful to God" he had the chance to marry both gay and straight couples before leaving City Hall. "This is really one of the last things I'll do as mayor. My days are ticking off."
"Tonight, we have crossed a barrier," Booker said, delivering short remarks after presiding over the seven same-sex and two opposite-sex couples. "While you all have fallen in love, the state of New Jersey has risen to love."
The ceremony began just after the clock struck midnight, when Booker announced to the crowd, "All right, ladies and gentleman, it is officially past midnight. Marriage is equal in New Jersey." Cheers filled the room when the first couple, Joseph Panessidi and Orville Bell, two 65-year-olds who have been together now for 15 years, joined Booker up front. From the second-floor balcony, cameras flashed down on the soon-to-be newlyweds as Booker recited the vows required by the state from a black binder.
When Booker reached the line in his script that prompts attendees for objections — to "speak now or forever hold your peace" — a man on the south wall of the rotunda broke the silence. "It is unlawful in the eyes of God," he yelled, carrying a sign with bible script written on it.
The man continued to shout, but Booker began to talk into the microphone over him. "Well, sir. Well, sir," said Booker. "Could you please remove him? Please remove that person." After the heckler had been removed from the room, Booker turned to the audience and said, "Not hearing any substantive and worthy objections, I now will proceed with the vows."
"By the power vested in me," he said, sealing the marriage, "thank God by the state of New Jersey — it's about time! — I declare Joseph and Orville to be lawful spouses in the state of New Jersey."
Two of the couples married by Mayor Cory Booker on Monday morning.
By the time the fifth couple took their vows, Booker was visibly emotional. "There's some law about making the mayor cry," he joked. "I think it's illegal."
For seven years as mayor of Newark, Booker has turned down requests to officiate weddings as a way of "protesting the painful reality that I could not marry all citizens equally," he said after the proceedings. "So I made a decision when I became mayor that, for the last almost seven and a half years, that I wasn't going to marry anybody until I could marry everybody."
After all nine weddings, Booker served up pieces of white wedding cake outside Room 106, the Dept. of Finance, and led the rotunda in a toast with sparkling apple cider. Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous line — "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice" — Booker declared the day a tribute "to justice, to righteousness, to equality, and most of all to love."
Roberto Baez and Alexandra Ortiz, a straight couple whom Booker married Monday, originally set a date for their wedding in May, but after hearing about the New Jersey court ruling, they decided they didn't want to wait.
"We woke up Friday, we heard about everything on the news, and we're like, 'Let's just go now,'" said Ortiz, a 31-year-old sales manager. "We have a lot of friends who are gay, and it's a shame that it's been this long that they had to wait. So it's an honor for us to be here today."
"We're a part of history," Baez, 31, added. "That's why we did it."
Lynne Womble and Debra Summers, another couple included in the ceremony, have been planning a wedding for months, they said, in the hope that same-sex marriage would soon be legal in the Garden State.
Summers, a 57-year-old retiree who first met Booker in 2006, said having her mayor preside over the wedding was "an honor."
"He's so special," said Summers.
Later that night, Booker told reporters he was "very, very filled up with love" from the ceremony, describing the fight for marriage equality as one of the country's unfinished civil rights battles. "We have second-class citizenship in America," Booker said. "Here in New Jersey, we took a leap forward for civil rights, for equality, really for the highest of American ideas — that we're all equal under the law."
"But I do not lose the reality that while we made a stride in New Jersey, all across the country there are still states that are giving different legal status to different human beings," he added.
Asked if he will work in the Senate to expand same-sex marriage rights, Booker said, "Absolutely."
Joseph Panessidi and Orville Bell were the first to exchange vows after midnight Monday.