New Jersey became the third U.S. state to offer civil unions to same-sex couples when a new law went into effect Monday.
Couples who have civil unions or marriages from other states or countries were automatically considered in a civil union in New Jersey, and they can affirm their vows as of Monday. That accounts for about a few hundred of the state's estimated 20,000 gay couples.
Other couples have a 72-hour waiting period, just like for marriage, to apply for a license. A few town halls around the state opened at 12:01 a.m. Monday so couples could file their applications.
Vermont and Connecticut have civil union laws, but Massachusetts is the only U.S. state to allow same-sex marriages. Same-sex marriage is legal in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and South Africa.
New Jersey's state Supreme Court ruled in October that the state must extend all the rights of marriage to gay couples, but left it to lawmakers to decide whether to provide those rights in the form of marriages, civil unions or something else. Lawmakers opted for "civil unions," in part because of opposition from legislators who objected on religious grounds to calling it "marriage."
At the same time, however, some social conservatives are launching a petition drive to persuade legislators to change the state constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.
For one plaintiff in the lawsuit that prompted the new law, Monday's milestone was bittersweet. Diane Marini's partner Marilyn Maneely died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 2005, more than a year before the case brought by six couples was decided.
"I'm thrilled to have been part of the whole movement to show people who didn't know what marriage meant, why it was important," said Marini, who plans to attend one couple's ceremony next weekend and probably several more in the next few months.
Marini says she will continue to be involved in the political fight for gay marriage, but without Maneely, she says, she will not be part of another lawsuit.