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Big day for gays: GAUNTLET OF HATE AT FIRST LESBIAN WEDDING; But couple's friends drown out protesters.

Byline: By Paul O'Hare

THE first lesbian couple to "marry" in the UK defied religious protesters yesterday to officially tie the knot.

Shannon Sickels and Grainne Close pledged their love in a ceremony made possible by new "civil partnership" laws.

Religious activists outside Belfast City Hall threatened the couple with "the vengeance of eternal fire". Some protesters held placards declaring: "Sodomy is Sin".

But the 40-strong protest group were drowned out by the cheers of Shannon and Grainne's 100 friends.

Scotland's first civil partnership ceremonies will take place today, with at least 140 couples expected to take part.

Almost 700 English and Welsh couples will follow tomorrow, including Sir Elton John and his long-term boyfriend David Furnish.

While not officially classed as weddings, civil partnerships give gays the same employment, pension and inheritance rights as married people.

The partnerships became legal on December 5. But the first of this week's ceremonies were held in Belfast because the registration period for couples in Ulster is shorter.

Grainne, a 32-year-old community worker from County Antrim, said she and Shannon were privileged to be the first gay couple to tie the knot.

New York-born playwright Shannon, 27, added: "This is about making a choice to have our civil rights acknowledged and protected.

"This is for all the people who went before us and the people who would like to come after us."

The couple's joy was not shared by Scots minister the Rev James Dowson, who shouted at two of their lesbian friends: "You need to turn yourself away from your sinful lifestyle. You're an abomination before God."

One of the minister's targets, Brenda Murphy, replied: "You would be so lucky to have this lady, love. I'll see you at the gates of Heaven."

Dowson, of Cumbernauld near Glasgow, is a minister with the Reformed Congregational Church.

A militant anti-abortion activist, he was banned by a court in 2001 from publishing the name and address of a family planning clinic director on the internet.

Another of yesterday's protesters, the Rev Ian Brown of the Free Presbyterian Church, claimed civil partnerships "promote a perverse lifestyle".

He added: "We want to defend our children against sodomite propaganda that is rife in our society today.

"God instituted marriage in the garden of Eden and it was one man with one woman.God has not changed that."

Grainne and Shannon exchanged matching platinum and diamond rings as the Dolly Parton song Touch Your Woman played in the background

CAPTION(S):

OFFICIALLY A COUPLE: Grainne and Shannon beam with pride after their history-making "marriage" ceremony in Belfast yesterday; DEMONSTRATION: Protesters make their views clear
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Dec 20, 2005
Words:436
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