By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Washington state will usher in same-sex marriage on Sunday as hundreds of gay and lesbian couples exchange vows in mass weddings on the first day they can legally tie the knot — and the biggest party will be in Seattle.
Washington, Maine and Maryland became the first U.S. states to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by a popular vote, with the November passage of separate ballot measures that marked a watershed moment 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 are due on Sunday after the expiry of a three-day waiting period required of all marriages.
Diane Butzberger and Amanda Russ of Tacoma plan to be among the first of 140 couples to get married at Seattle's City Hall on Sunday morning in a feted mass celebration.
"So many older couples who've been mentors to us are going to be there," said Russ, 39, a student at the Evergreen State College in Olympia. "We want to celebrate with them."
Much to her delight, the newlyweds will be treated by the city to a massive wedding cake.
"It's a cake for 400 gays and lesbians getting married," said Russ, whose soon-to-be spouse is a hair stylist. "There's no way that cake's not going to be good. There's no way it's not going to be decorated perfectly."
The weddings come as U.S. public opinion has been shifting in favor of allowing same-sex nuptials, 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. President Barack Obama in May 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, such as in taxes and immigration, that heterosexual couples receive. It also took on a challenge to California's voter-approved gay marriage ban.
For same-sex couples now preparing to marry in Washington, 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 collected 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.
With Seattle City Hall unable to accommodate all the brides and grooms seeking to exchange vows on Sunday, a handful of King County judges have volunteered to marry couples in their courtrooms starting as the clock chimes midnight.
Among those taking advantage of the atypical court hours will be Brendon Taga, 33, and Jesse Page, 30, of Seattle.
"Getting the right to marry feels like a natural extension of something that already existed," said Taga, a lawyer.
Taga and Page had dreamed of holding a larger ceremony with friends and family next year on the beach in Taga's native Hawaii. But when same-sex marriage passed in Washington state last month, they had a change of heart.
"Hawaii's still got a ways to go," Taga said. "We want to spend our dollars where it can go to benefit citizens supporting us as a couple."
Couples issued a marriage license in Washington state have 60 days to get married, and not everyone is rushing to get hitched on Sunday.
Amanda Beane and Anne Bryson-Beane of Seattle waited in line for their license at the King County Administration building Wednesday night, but will not be tying the knot until January 26. They'll exchange vows before friends and family at Faith Lutheran church in Seattle.
"I refused to talk about wedding preparations until the results were in," said Beane, explaining the slight delay.
Beane, who with her partner has seven adopted children between the ages of four and 12, said she hopes they will long remember the campaign to pass same-sex marriage in the state, and the sense of elation and acceptance that came with victory on November 6.
"I hope one day they're talking to their kids about it and their kids will be in disbelief that their grandmothers couldn't get married," she said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston,Greg McCune,Doina Chiacu)