By Karen Brooks
(Reuters) - Dozens of same-sex couples tied the knot in Hawaii early Monday as a new law allowing gay couples to marry went into effect at midnight.
Between 30 and 40 couples were being married at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel in Honolulu starting just after midnight local time (0500 ET), a hotel employee, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Three hours later, the ceremonies were still being performed and no protesters had shown up, the employee said. Photos posted on social media sites depicted flowers and chandeliers, wedding dresses and Hawaiian shirts, and leis on celebrating guests.
Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie signed into law last month legislation extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, capping 20 years of legal and political rancor in a state regarded as a pioneer in advancing the cause of gay matrimony.
The new law, passed during a special session of the Democrat-controlled legislature, makes Hawaii the 15th U.S. state to legalize nuptials for gay and lesbian couples, rolling back a 1994 statute defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The path to legal gay marriage in Hawaii, long a popular wedding and honeymoon destination, has been long.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that barring same-sex marriage was discriminatory, in a landmark opinion that spurred the gay rights movement nationwide but sparked a backlash that until now kept matrimony restricted to heterosexual couples in Hawaii.
The latest reversal by Hawaii lawmakers comes at a time of increasing momentum for gay marriage in the courts, at the ballot box and in statehouses across the United States.
The trend has gained steam since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits, striking down a key part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act.
The bill exempts clergy from having to perform gay weddings if doing so would conflict with their religious beliefs. It also grants immunity from liability to religious organizations and officials for refusing to provide goods and services, or their facilities or grounds, for same-sex weddings and related events.
Massachusetts led the way in legalizing gay marriage by becoming the first state to do so in 2003. A year ago, only six states and the District of Columbia recognized gay marriage, but the number has since more than doubled, due in most cases to litigation over the issue.
In October, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dropped his legal opposition to gay marriage, making his state the 14th to legalize same-sex weddings.
Maine, Maryland and Washington became the first to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote by passing ballot initiatives last November.
A new Illinois law allowing same-sex marriages goes into effect in six months.
(Reporting by Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Scott Malone and Maureen Bavdek)