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Minnesota and Rhode Island joined the ranks of states that allow same-sex marriages early Thursday as couples lined up for nuptials they had been waiting for since their governors signed the applicable laws in May.
Eleven other states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage, following the lead of Massachusetts, which became the first state to do so in 2004.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to gay couples who are legally married in their states.
The weddings in both Rhode Island and Minnesota began shortly after midnight.
"It’s a big day for the country as we add to the number of Americans now living in a freedom-to-marry state," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a New York City-based same-sex marriage advocacy group.
While the Supreme Court decision heartened those in favor of same-sex marriage, 29 states have enacted constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman, according to Freedom to Marry.
But with Minnesota and Rhode Island as the latest states to allow gay marriage, the hope of supporters is that the momentum will spur some states to undo those constitutional amendments.
Elections slated for 2014 and strong legislative support for gay marriage in some states are expected to turn the tide next in New Jersey, Illinois and Hawaii, where in 1993 the state's Supreme Court struck down a statute that would have limited marriage to heterosexual couples.
In Minnesota, more than 52 percent of voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage during the November 2012 elections, despite strong religious fervor among most Minnesotans living outside the Twin Cities.
That amendment was the brainchild of Rep. Michele Bachman (R-Minn.), who rose to prominence after spending years in the State Senate trying to battle same-sex rights, even launching a failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2011. Even so, the Minnesota State Legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill that was signed into law in May by Governor Mark Dayton.
Rhode Island, a heavily Catholic state, was the last in New England to legalize same-sex marriage following 16 years of efforts by supporters. The state legislature passed a bill to approve it in May of 2013, though Catholic leaders in Rhode Island have decried the move.
Governor Lincoln Chafee had signed a bill into law in 2011 that legalized civil unions for same-sex couples, but pledged to continue the fight for gay marriage. He was one of the few Republicans to express support for gay marriage when he served in the U.S. Senate from 1999 to 2006. After changing his political affiliation to Independent and then to Democratic, Chaffee ultimately signed a gay marriage bill into law as Rhode Island's governor in May.
Both states will also recognize same-sex marriages that have been performed in other states.
An 'amazing milestone'
R.D. Zimmerman, an author from Minneapolis, Minn., never imagined he’d see the day when he could legally marry his partner, Lars Peterssen, with whom he has lived for the past 34 years.
They’re among a handful of couples who will be married early Thursday morning at Minneapolis City Hall by Mayor R.T. Rybak.
Zimmerman, 60, met Peterssen, 57, in the summer of 1976, while they were both studying Russian at the University of Leningrad during the Soviet era. Zimmerman says he stayed in Russia for a few years working for the U.S. foreign service, but left due to the stigma against his sexual orientation.
He and Peterssen moved in together in Minneapolis in 1979, and Zimmerman says that ever since, they’ve been “two souls united.” They’d always hoped they could one day marry legally, but never counted on it.
“So we have to look at this as a wonderful, amazing milestone,” Zimmerman says. “We don’t know how we’re going to celebrate with family and friends - we just know it’s important to be legally married as soon as possible.”
Rybak will perform marriage ceremonies for 20 couples starting late Wednesday night, and has asked them to provide him with details about their relationships so he can give them personalized vows.
“There are very few times in anyone’s life when you get to have a few hours when you see history change,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is one of them.”
They’ll start the ceremonies a few minutes before midnight, and will declare the first couple married once the clock strikes.
Among the celebrators in Minneapolis will be Richard Carlbom, the director of Minnesotans United for All Families, the group that lobbied against the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Minnesota.
Now, he'll move on to head up state campaigns for Freedom to Marry, the national lobbying group.
"It’s hard to believe that Minnesota has come this far this fast," he said.
He’ll be celebrating Wednesday night at the Wilde Roast Café in Minneapolis with friends, including a couple who were married the first night gay marriage was legalized in the state of Iowa.
The battle ahead
Although polls show that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, a significant minority vociferously opposes it.
Chuck Darrell, spokesman for the Minnesota Family Council, an advocacy group that promotes biblical principles, says they’ll continue to promote a culture of heterosexual marriage, and will work to promote legislators who uphold those values. They’ll also provide legal advice to pastors who don’t want to participate in gay-marriage ceremonies.
“The bottom line for us is that the conversation about marriage is not over,” he said. “Despite the changes, we don’t believe same-sex marriage is inevitable.”
Wolfson of Freedom to Marry says the group will continue to push for a "critical mass" of states among the 37 that don't recognize gay marriage.
He estimates that one-third of Americans currently live in states where same-sex marriage is allowed, but wants that number to reach a majority by 2016, when several states may float ballot initiatives for gay marriage.
FTM recently launched state-wide campaigns in New Jersey, Illinois, and Hawaii, but as Wolfson points out, "this is not just a political fight, and it's not just a campaign," he says. "It’s about real families and no one getting hurt by discrimination.”