As midnight chimed in Washington state, a lesbian couple exchanged vows in the first of hundreds of mass weddings on Sunday – the first day that same-sex couples can legally tie the knot there.
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 couples lined up to apply for marriage licenses, and the first legal same-sex weddings began on Sunday after a three-day waiting period required of all marriages expired.
Judge Mary Yu stepped up to wed a dozen couples at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. The first couple to say “I do” were Sarah and Emily Cofer, a couple who have been together for over ten years, the court said.
Yu decided to work through the night, marrying couples at 30-minute intervals, because she felt they should not have to wait any longer to tie the knot, her bailiff and law clerk Takao Yamada said.
Yamada told Reuters he was decorating Yu’s courtroom with “just a couple of flowers, nothing over the top. It’s still a courtroom on Monday.”
To accommodate the expected flury of weddings, Seattle’s City Hall was set to wed 140 couples in a mass celebration later on Sunday morning.
The weddings come as 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.
The weddings come as 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 swiftly signed it 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.
The 30-minute ceremonies that started at midnight in Yu’s courtroom were likely to be low-key, Yamada indicated. “It’s not a throw-open the doors kind of thing,” he added.