LAMBERTVILLE, N.J. — Gay couples in communities across New Jersey exchanged marriage vows in the first minutes of Monday, taking advantage of a court ruling that compelled the state to become the 14th in the nation to recognize same-sex nuptials.
In Lambertville, Beth Asaro and Joanne Schailey smiled through a ceremony in the same crowded municipal courtroom where almost seven years ago they became one of the first couples in the state joined in a civil union.
"We remained optimistic and hopeful that we would be able to gather together to do the right thing, the just thing, and see our two friends get married," Mayor Dave DelVecchio, who led both the 2007 ceremony and Monday's, said before leading the couple of 27 years through their vows as their 13-year-old daughter served as the flower girl.
"We're floating on air," Asaro, in a salmon pink suit, said afterward. "It's like winning the Super Bowl," said Schailey, who wore a black pant suit.
At Newark's City Hall, where seven gay couples and two heterosexual couples were wed, there was a brief disruption from a protester who cried out, "This is unlawful in the eyes of God and Jesus Christ," before Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat elected last week to the U.S. Senate, declared Gabriela Celeiro and Liz Salerno "lawful spouses." After the protester was removed, the mayor, choking up, paused, put his hand over his heart and said, "This is very beautiful."
The ceremonies joined couples that have been together years, and in some cases decades, in hastily arranged ceremonies that remained in doubt until Friday when a unanimous state Supreme Court rejected Gov. Chris Christie's administration's request to delay the implementation date of same-sex weddings.
Last month, a lower-court judge ruled that New Jersey must recognize gay marriages starting Monday.
The Republican governor, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, asked the state's top court to overturn that ruling, and not to force the state to recognize same-sex marriage until the appeal was resolved.
The court agreed to hear the overall case in January but announced Friday it would not delay the start of the marriages, in part because it said the state is not likely to prevail in its arguments next year. Christie said the state would comply with the ruling, though he also reaffirmed his position that whether to allow gay marriage should be decided by a popular vote, not a judge or even legislature.
A few minutes before midnight Sunday in Jersey City, Mayor Steve Fulop gathered eight couples in the front of the city council chambers to conduct a swift mass ceremony.
"I never thought I'd see this in my lifetime," said Barbara Milton after she was married to Kay Osborn. "To have this moment of equality is overwhelming."
The newlyweds and their friends and family went into the City Hall rotunda after the ceremony for champagne and cake. As they posed for a photo with the mayor, someone yelled out, "Kiss!" and all eight couples did.
The couples married Monday can receive all the state and federal benefits of marriage, giving them benefits and protections including being allowed to file tax returns jointly and Social Security survivor benefits.
The first ceremonies also served as celebrations for gay rights advocates and their allies in the Legislature.
Three state lawmakers were at Asaro and Schailey's ceremony, including Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, the state's first openly gay lawmaker and a prime sponsor of a bill to allow gay marriage.
One couple married in the first minute of the day — possibly the first in the state — was Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin, a couple for more than 20 years who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit pressing to allow same-sex marriage. Their ceremony in Elizabeth was at the home of state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, one of the main legislative champions of gay marriage. Another state senator, Loretta Weinberg, gave the couple away. And Steven Goldstein, the founder and former leader of Garden State Equality, New Jersey's most prominent gay rights group, gave a prayer.
Though couples have started marrying, the issue isn't completely settled in New Jersey.
The state Supreme Court could still decide that New Jersey does not have to recognize same-sex nuptials, an outcome that could create uncertainty about the legal status of the marriages conducted Monday.
Also, lawmakers are still trying to override Christie's 2012 veto of the bill to allow the marriages.
Henry reported from Newark. Associated Press writers Angela Delli Santi in Elizabeth and Katie Zezima in Jersey City contributed to this report.