PHOENIX — Karen Bailey and Nelda Majors were a couple for 50 years before they told friends and family about their relationship.
They kept it secret to avoid the hostility that they saw lesbians and gay men endure throughout much of their lifetime. Six years after they revealed their relationship, the partners witnessed something that they never thought was possible when they met in the 1950s: gay marriage is now legal.
"We would have never, ever thought we would have had this opportunity," Bailey said hours after she stood among the first same-sex couples in Arizona to get marriage licenses.
Gay marriage became legal in Arizona on Friday, a sharp turn for a state that became ground zero in the clash over gay rights less than a year ago when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing businesses to deny service to gays and lesbians.
Same-sex couples lined up to marry at the courthouse in downtown Phoenix immediately after Attorney General Tom Horne announced that the state wouldn't challenge a federal court decision that cleared the way for same-sex unions in the state.
The decision bookends two weeks of nonstop court rulings across the nation, with judges striking down bans on same-sex unions and conservative state officials pushing back in a struggle that has increasingly gone in favor of gay marriage supporters.
Since Oct. 6 — when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand rulings that struck down gay marriage bans — same-sex couples have begun to wed in several new states.
In the West, for example, couples have since tied the knot in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho and Nevada, making Montana the lone state under the jurisdiction of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where same-sex couples can't legally wed.
The federal government, meanwhile, announced Friday morning that it will recognize same-sex marriages in seven new states and extend federal benefits to those couples, which brings the total number of states where gay and lesbian unions have federal recognition to 26, plus the District of Columbia.
Based on the flurry of recent court decisions, including separate decisions Friday that apply to Arizona and Alaska, more than 30 states now extend marriage rights to gay couples.
Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, who has clashed with President Barack Obama over immigration and border security, said in a statement that federal courts have gone against the will of voters and eroded the state's power. "Simply put, courts should not be in the business of making and changing laws based on their personal agendas," Brewer said.
The issue has been a source of tension. Nearly eight months ago, Brewer vetoed the bill that would have allowed religious beliefs to be a defense against discrimination claims. Critics called it an attack on gays and said it could allow nearly any law to be broken in the name of religious freedom. The proposal set off a national debate, and companies including Apple Inc. and American Airlines encouraged Brewer's veto.
Horne, meanwhile, said he's done all he could to defend the ban and that further wrangling would waste taxpayer dollars. "The probability of the 9th Circuit reversing today's District Court decision is zero. The probability of the United States Supreme Court accepting review of the 9th Circuit decision is also zero," the Republican said.
The federal court decision bars Arizona officials from enforcing a 1996 state law and a 2008 voter-approved constitutional amendment that outlawed gay marriage.
Lawyers challenging the ban argued the state law violated equal protection and due process rights and wrongfully denied their clients the benefits of marriage, such as the ability to make medical decisions.
Attorneys representing the state fought to uphold the definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman. They argued that voters and lawmakers enacted the ban to protect their right to define marriage for themselves.
After Horne's news conference, a crowd of about a dozen couples cheered and rushed into the clerk's office in Phoenix, smiling and hugging in a scene that played out across the state.
Among the couples there were Bailey and Majors. Though marriage never seemed possible to them in their youth, they began to get hope in recent years as the nation started to debate the legality of same-sex unions.
Despite all the joy they felt Friday, Bailey said it was still hard to express her feelings about such a sweeping social turn-around that she witnessed in her lifetime. People can now see the couple and the two relatives they became parents to as a family, she said.
"It has been an amazing trip," she said.
The couple of 56 years is going to see a wedding planner on Monday.
Associated Press reporters Astrid Galvan, Brian Skoloff and Steve Fluty contributed. Galvan reported from Tucson.