SEATTLE (Reuters) - As midnight chimed, public school elementary teachers Sarah and Emily Cofer tied the knot at a joyful mass wedding to mark the first day that same-sex couples can marry in Washington state.
"We're so proud to live in this state that recognizes love and commitment," said Sarah, 31, after she and Emily, 32, uttered the words "I will" before the aptly-named judge Mary Yu at Seattle's King County Courthouse.
Washington, Maine and Maryland became the first U.S. states to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by a popular vote in November, in a leap forward for gay rights.
Washington's law went into effect on Thursday, when hundreds of eager couples lined up to apply for marriage licenses. The first legal same-sex weddings began on Sunday after a three-day waiting period required of all marriages expired.
The Cofers' union was the state's first same-sex wedding. Cameras clicked, observers clapped and their nine-month old daughter Carter - born to one of the pair and adopted by the other - cried.
The couple said they would head home and put Carter to bed.
They were followed by 11 other couples due to take their vows at 30-minute intervals through the night in Yu's 9th-floor courtroom decorated with poinsettia.
Boxes of tissues were on hand for tearful guests.
"I'm proud to be a witness to an extraordinary event in our history," said Yu. The marathon nuptials were "an opportunity to recognize that marriage and love and family are good", she said.
Preparing for their own night-time ceremony at the courthouse in downtown Seattle, lawyer Brendon Taga and banker Jesse Page, both dressed in dark suits, chatted with reporters.
"It's a culmination of our relationship. We're very fortunate to be living in this state," said Taga, 33.
U.S. public opinion has been shifting in favor of allowing same-sex marriages, already made legal in six states and the District of Columbia by lawmakers or courts, although not previously via a popular vote. Another 31 states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.
A Pew Research Center survey from October found 49 percent of Americans favored allowing gay marriage, with 40 percent opposed. Back in May, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to say same-sex couples should be able to wed.
As gays and lesbians readied for their nuptials in Washington state, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped into the fray over gay marriage on Friday by agreeing to review two challenges to federal and state laws that define marriage as between a man and a woman.
The high court agreed to review a federal law that denies married same-sex couples federal benefits that heterosexual couples receive, such as in taxes and immigration. It also took on a challenge to California's voter-approved gay marriage ban.
For same-sex couples now swapping vows in Washington state, the path to legalization has been a rocky one. The state's Democratic-controlled legislature passed a bill to legalize gay marriage in February, and Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire signed it swiftly into law.
But opponents gathered enough signatures to temporarily block the measure from taking effect and force the issue onto the state ballot. Voters, by 54 percent to 46 percent, ultimately approved gay marriage at the polls in November. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington; Editing by Tim Gaynor and Tom Pfeiffer)
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