By Medina Roshan
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Seven gay couples in Maryland rang in the New Year with wedding bells early Tuesday, the first wave of nuptials since voters in the state backed the legalization of same-sex marriage.
The couples were "lawfully married" rather than pronounced "husband and wife" at the 12:30 a.m. (0530 GMT) ceremony on New Year's Day in Baltimore's City Hall.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake officiated at the wedding of the first of the couples, 68-year-old James Scales and 60-year-old William Tasker. Scales and Tasker said they had been together for 35 years.
The mayor joked that everyone had come to celebrate a relationship that began many years ago - "and I mean that, many years ago."
Soon after the November vote legalizing gay marriage, Scales, a long-time city employee, asked the mayor to marry the two.
"She wanted to make a statement to tell gay, lesbian, transgendered couples that they're welcome here," said the mayor's press secretary Ian Brennan of her decision.
Voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington state approved same-sex unions on Election Day, becoming the only states to pass such a measure by popular vote.
Nine of the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., now have legalized gay marriage. Another 31 states have passed constitutional amendments banning it.
Rawlings-Blake called the November 6 vote "a remarkable achievement for Maryland" and welcomed friends and families of the couples to witness history at the early morning ceremony.
"We are excited to open City Hall to host some of the first wedding ceremonies in our great state," Rawlings-Blake said.
Public opinion has been shifting in favor of allowing same-sex marriage. A Pew Research Center survey from October found 49 percent of Americans favored allowing gay marriage, with 40 percent opposed. In May, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to say he believed same-sex couples should be allowed to get married.
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 December 9 and Maine's on December 29.
(Reporting by Medina Roshan; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Tim Dobbyn and Eric Walsh)