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Gay marriage comes to Maine: Couples wed when law takes effect after midnight

PORTLAND, Maine - Gay and lesbian couples exchanged their vows early Saturday as Maine's new same-sex marriage law took effect a minute after midnight.

Among them were Steven Bridges and Michael Snell, who held a commitment ceremony six years ago but wanted to make their marriage official under state law.

"It's historic. We've waited our entire lives for this," said Bridges, a retail manager, who's been in a relationship with the Snell, a massage therapist, for nine years. Bridges, 42, and Snell, 53, wore lavender and purple carnations on black T-shirts with the words "Love is love."

With Snell's two adult daughters looking on, they exchanged their vows in the city clerk's office after getting the first marriage license issued to a same-sex couple in Portland. They said they'll hold another ceremony with friends this summer, after the weather warms up.

Voters approved gay marriage in November, making Maine and two other states the first to do so by popular vote. A law is already in effect in Washington state; Maryland's takes effect Tuesday. 

Nine of the 50 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia have now legalized gay marriage. Another 31 states have passed constitutional amendments banning it.

In Portland, a half dozen couples huddled with friends and family in freezing temperatures outside the building before the doors to the city clerk's office were opened at 10 p.m. local time.

"We've been together for 30 years, and never thought that this country would allow marriages between gay couples," said Roberta Batt, 71, an antiques dealer and retired physician with silver hair and round eyeglasses. She planned to marry her longtime partner, Mary, who stood nearby.

"We're just very thankful to the people of Maine, and I hope the rest of the country goes the way this state has," she added.

Suzanne Blackburn and Joanie Kunian, of Portland, were among those in line to get their license at midnight, but they didn't plan to wed immediately. One of their grandchildren wanted them to get married on Valentine's Day.

"I don't think that we dared to dream too big until we had the governor's signature," Blackburn said. "That's why it's so important, because it feels real."

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In Bangor, the city clerk's office was planning to be open on Saturday from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. for residents to obtain marriage licenses. The Brunswick town clerk's office was set to be open from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday by appointment. As of midday on Friday, five same-sex couples had booked appointments, the office said.

More lavish same-sex weddings are being booked starting in the spring at the On the Marsh Bistro in Kennebunk, said owner Denise Rubin.

"We support it wholeheartedly," she said. "We look forward to being part of a whole new wave of wonderful thinking."

The tide of public opinion has been shifting in favor of allowing same-sex marriage. In May, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to say he believed same-sex couples should be allowed to get married.

A Pew Research Center survey from October found 49 percent of Americans favored allowing gay marriage, with 40 percent opposed. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review two challenges to federal and state laws that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The nation's highest court said this month it will review a case against a federal law that denies married same-sex couples the federal benefits that heterosexual couples receive. It also will look at a challenge to California's ban on gay marriage, known as Proposition 8, which voters narrowly approved in 2008.

Washington state's law legalizing same-sex unions took effect on Sunday, December 9, and Maryland's law takes effect on January 1, 2013.

This article includes reporting by Reuters and The Associated Press.

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