SEATTLE (AP) - Hundreds of same-sex couples across Washington state started picking up marriage licenses Thursday as a voter-approved law legalizing gay marriage took effect.
King County, the state's largest, opened the doors to its auditor's office in Seattle just after midnight to start distributing licenses. But hundreds of people had lined up hours earlier, snaking around the building on a chilly December night. The county said it issued 489 marriage licenses Thursday, mostly to same-sex couples, breaking a previous daily record of 212. On average, King County issues 75 to 100 marriage licenses a day.
The mood in Seattle was festive in the overnight waiting line.
"We waited a long time. We've been together 35 years, never thinking we'd get a legal marriage. Now I feel so joyous I can't hardly stand it," said 85-year-old Pete-e Petersen, who with her partner, 77-year-old Jane Abbott Lighty, were the first to get a license.
After meeting 35 years ago on a blind date in Sacramento, Lighty and Petersen plan to get married Sunday. The couple has been out buying shoes and clothes for the wedding.
Washington state now joins several other states that allow gay and lesbian couples to wed. Gov. Chris Gregoire and Secretary of State Sam Reed certified the election results of Referendum 74 on Wednesday afternoon, and the law took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.
R-74 had asked voters to either approve or reject the state law legalizing same-sex marriage that legislators passed earlier this year. That law was signed by Gregoire in February but was put on hold pending the outcome of the election. Nearly 54 percent of voters approved the measure.
The law doesn't require religious organizations or churches to marry gay or lesbian couples.
Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday. Same-sex couples who previously were married in another state that allows gay marriage, like Massachusetts, will not have to get remarried in Washington state. Their marriages became valid here Thursday, when the law took effect.
Vicky Dalton, the Spokane County auditor, was designated as a point person for all of the counties preparing for same-sex marriage licenses. She said that as of 4 p.m. Thursday, more than 760 marriage licenses had been issued statewide to same-sex couples, with more than half of them being issued in King County.
At the Thurston County courthouse Thursday morning, Deb Dulaney, 54, and Diane McGee, 64, both of Olympia, arrived just before 9 a.m. The couple have been together for 16 years and moved to Washington state in 2005 from California, where they were registered as domestic partners.
McGee said they wanted to get married there but were unable to before voters passed 2008's Proposition 8, the amendment that outlawed gay marriage after it had been approved by court ruling. A federal court has since struck down Prop. 8, but an appeal on that case is still pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dulaney and McGee registered as domestic partners in Seattle in 2005, and then through the state when the state's domestic partnership law passed in 2007. Now they wanted to take that final step of marriage. They haven't set a wedding date but said a simple service is planned within the 60 days that their license is valid.
"I feel much more moved by it than I thought I would," Dulaney said. "I thought we were just going to come here, get the paperwork and go home. But now, it's like, 'whoa.'"
"It's for real now," McGee told her.
Last month, Washington, Maine and Maryland became the first states to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote. They joined six other states - New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont - and the District of Columbia, which had already enacted laws or issued court rulings permitting same-sex marriage.
Couples in Maryland also started picking up marriage licenses Thursday, though their licenses won't take effect until Jan. 1.
"I really imagined my life as being just with a partner and never having a wife, so to have this day come about and to be a part of it, it means everything to me," said Kim Hinken, who was the first person to get a marriage license in Anne Arundel County, Md.'s Circuit Court. The 52-year-old Edgewater resident said she has waited nearly 10 years to become legally married to Adrianne Eathorne.
Maine's law takes effect Dec. 29. There's no waiting period in Maine, and people can start marrying just after midnight.
In addition to private ceremonies that will start taking place across Washington state this weekend, Seattle City Hall will open for several hours Sunday, and several local judges are donating their time to marry more than 140 couples starting at 10 a.m. In Olympia, a group of local judges has offered to perform wedding ceremonies just after midnight on Sunday at the Thurston County courthouse.
Washington state has had a domestic partnership law in place since 2007. The initial law granted couples about two dozen rights, including hospital visitation and inheritance rights when there is no will. It was expanded a year later, and then again in 2009, when lawmakers completed the package with the so-called "everything but marriage" law that was ultimately upheld by voters later that year.
This year, lawmakers passed the law allowing gay marriage, and Gregoire signed it in February. Opponents gathered enough signatures for a referendum, putting the law on hold before it could take effect.
La Corte reported from Olympia. Associated Press Brian Witte also contributed from Annapolis, Md.