By Daniel Lovering
PORTLAND, Maine (Reuters) - The first gay and lesbian couples to wed under Maine's new same-sex marriage law exchanged vows early on Saturday in a series of spare but joyous civil ceremonies held shortly after midnight.
"We finally feel equal and happy to be living in Maine," an exuberant Steven Bridges, 42, said shortly after he and his newly wedded husband, Michael Snell, 53, became the first couple at City Hall in Maine's largest town to tie the knot.
After the pair had filled out the necessary paperwork, the city records clerk, Christine Horne, performed the brief, no-frills ceremony, pronouncing the two men married as they exchanged rings and kissed. Snell's two adult daughters, both from a previous heterosexual marriage, looked on smiling.
Other couples waiting in the hallway outside the clerk's office cheered the pair as they emerged, and a much larger crowd of about 250 supporters huddled in front of the building let out a jubilant roar as Bridges, a retail manager, and Snell, a massage therapist, stepped out into the cold night air.
A group in the crowd sang the Beatles song "All You Need Is Love," accompanied by several musicians playing brass horns, and many carried signs with such slogans as "America's new day begins in Maine" and "Love one another."
Nearby, a man who identified himself only as a local preacher shouted Bible verses.
"I'm here to speak for the Lord and to warn they need to repent," the man said. "They should turn from their ways. Even though man passed a law, doesn't mean God does."
Similar nuptial scenes were repeated inside as five more couples exchanged vows during the next two hours, and more weddings were expected before the office was scheduled to close again at 3 a.m. Newlywed couples were offered cupcakes as they left the building.
About 15 couples simply obtained their marriage licenses, with plans to wed later.
"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, as she and her longtime partner, Mary, waited their turn to wed.
"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.
TURNING THE TIDE
Maine, Maryland and Washington state became the first three U.S. states to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote with passage of ballot initiatives on November 6.
But Maine was the only one of the three where voters did so entirely on their own, without state legislators precipitating a referendum by acting first.
Nine of the 50 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia now have statutes legalizing gay marriage. Washington's law took effect on December 9, and Maryland's law does so on January 1, 2013. Another 31 states have passed constitutional amendments restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.
City clerks' offices around Maine scheduled extra weekend office hours, some opening late Friday night as in Portland to accommodate same-sex couples rushing to wed as the new law went into force at 12:01 a.m.
More lavish same-sex weddings were being booked for 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 declare his support for allowing gay couples to wed.
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.
Maine's voter-approved initiative this year marked a turnaround from 2009, when legislators passed a statute recognizing gay marriage only to see it overturned that same year in a statewide referendum.
(Reporting by Daniel Lovering; Writing by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Todd Eastham and Eric Beech)