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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tori Hoffarth and Steffi Floch pose for a photo at Love Elevated at the Rail Event Center Saturday January 11, 2014. Love Elevated, a celebration of same-sex marriages that occurred during the 17 days between U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling striking down Utah's ban on gay marriages and the Supreme Court's stay on further marriages pending an appeal by the state, took place in Salt Lake City.
Utah’s same-sex newlyweds toasted at big reception

Fund raiser » Sister Dottie Dixon warmed up “Love Elevated,” celebrating weddings.

First Published Jan 11 2014 09:19 pm • Last Updated Jan 12 2014 12:08 pm

Many close family members couldn’t make the hastily-organized ceremony, and they expected the state of Utah to contest their union.

But 13 days after a federal judge overturned Utah’s ban on gay marriage, 63-year-old Marsha Hopkins and 67-year-old Marge Willingham sealed their 25-year relationship with an intimate wedding at their Bountiful home in the presence of family, friends and their four dogs.

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And on Saturday the couple shared their first dance as newlyweds at a group reception at the Rail Event Center in Salt Lake City to mark the legal marriage of more than 1,000 same-sex couples in Utah.

"I told her, ‘It’s going to be a bumpy ride because the state’s going to fight it,’" said Hopkins, recalling the night she proposed. "But I’d rather be on a bumpy ride than not at the carnival."

Saturday’s party doubled as a fund raiser for Restore our Humanity, the group that mounted the legal challenge to Amendment 3.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled the law unconstitutional just days before Christmas, spurring hundreds to flock to county clerk offices to request marriage licenses.

Those marriages are now on hold as the state appeals Shelby’s ruling.

"If the state of Utah is going to spend $2 million [contesting the ruling], we ought to raise that much, too," said Michael Aaron, publisher of QSaltLake, which sponsored the event.

Instrumental music played as the first of thousands of guests entered the Rail Event Center. Among them: Michael Ferguson and Seth Anderson, the first same-sex couple to receive a license and be married in Utah, and Kody Partridge and Laurie Wood, one of the three couples named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

There was a cake-cutting ceremony and champagne toasts delivered with humor and solemnity.

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Comedian Sister Dottie Dixon started an opening prayer by thanking the Lord, "For letting me live long enough to see Hell freeze over."

On a more serious note, she asked "to help us keep perspective about the process we are all a part of. Let us remember to be better in all our behaviors and ways than those who choose to oppress us, hate us or misunderstand us."

Some, like 31-year-old Amanda Habas, came to show support.

"I flew in today from Chicago. I’m here in honor of them," she said, pointing to two long-term friends who were recently engaged.

Others were there to celebrate change.

"I never thought I’d see this, not in my life time," said 64-year-old Vietnam veteran Connie Collier of Salt Lake.

For Hopkins and Willingham, it was another chance to seize a fleeting moment.

"It was our time and it might not come again, so we took it," said Hopkins of their decision to marry even though it meant some of their six children and four grandchildren wouldn’t be able to attend.

The two met at a restaurant Willingham managed. Hopkins, a native of Spanish Fork, had applied for a job there to supplement her day job.

"She was recently divorced and in the dumps," recalls Hopkins. I guess the cook thought I could cheer her up."

They’ve long wanted to be wed, but as they’ve gotten older they’ve felt more of a sense of urgency. Hopkins wants assurance that her wife will receive her federal retirement benefits should something happen to her.

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