updated 4/7/2004 3:26:02 PM ET 2004-04-07T19:26:02

The national debate over gay marriage is still heating up, with no resolution in sight. But one thing is abundantly clear: Legalizing same-sex marriages would mean a windfall for the wedding industry. We estimate that if the laws were changed, gay couples currently living together would collectively spend $16.8 billion to get hitched.

Of course, they wouldn't all get married right away, so it might be several years before the industry reaped the entire windfall. But it seems reasonable to presume that if same-sex marriage were to be legalized, a large percentage of gay couples immediately would begin making plans to march down the aisle together. The industry would catch the bouquet in the form of a short-term gain of prodigious proportions.

From caterers to jewelers to travel agents, the $70 billion-per-year U.S. wedding industry embraces a wide array of sectors. If gay couples could say "I do," and assuming they spend as much on the occasion as their heterosexual counterparts, then such companies as Tiffany, Williams-Sonoma, Marriot International, Federated Department Stores and May Department Stores would see a serious boost in their matrimony-related business.

Gay marriage would inject a sudden growth spurt into an industry whose expansion prospects are constrained by the limited growth in annual marriages. That's not to say that the sector has been stagnant in recent years: The average cost of a wedding has climbed steadily in the last decade to reach $22,000 in 2004, according to The Knot, the largest online wedding site with about 1.1 million new couples registering each year.

The U.S. Census bureau found that roughly 92 percent of heterosexual couples living together in 2000 were married. We assume for the sake of argument that the same percentage would apply to gay couples. The census estimated that 594,000 homosexual couples were living together in 2000, so we figure that 92 percent of them, roughly 546,000 couples, would wed if they could. They might not do it right away, but over time they would swell the ranks of would-be brides and grooms.

Of course, when straight couples marry, not all of them hold a reception to celebrate the event. Every year, about 15 percent of newlyweds pass on the canapés and decide that a quick trip to City Hall suits them better. So we eliminated 15 percent of our gay couples as well, leaving us with 464,000 couples likely to throw a party to celebrate their nuptials. Then we multiplied that figure by the amount the average heterosexual couple currently spends on such items as engagement rings, banquet halls, wedding dresses and honeymoons. Add it all up, and it comes to $16.8 billion.

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