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First marriage licenses issued to gay couples in Washington state

King County Executive Dow Constantine, right , leads a cheer as the clock strikes midnight and he can begin to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples lined-up, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in Seattle. First in line are Jane Abbott Lighty, and Pete-e Petersen. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
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The wait is over for gay couples in Washington state eager to get their marriage licenses after voters passed R-74 last month. Dozens of same-sex couples obtained their marriage licenses in Washington state early Thursday, just hours after Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a law legalizing gay marriage in the state.

King County, the state's biggest county, opened the doors to its auditor's office in Seattle just after midnight PST to start distributing marriage licenses. But hundreds of people had lined up hours earlier, snaking around the downtown Seattle building on a chilly December night.

Executive Dow Constantine held a brief ceremony at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday to honor the first couple in King County to receive its same-sex marriage license, Jane Abbott Lighty, and Pete-e Petersen.

"What we are doing here today is bringing us one step closer to living up to the founding ideals of this country, that all people are created equal and that they have the right to the pursuit of happiness," said Constantine.

Since midnight, the office has issued 418 licenses.

"It's huge to be a part of history and I couldn't pass up a moment to be a part of that," said Jen McKenna on why she stood outside the King County Auditor's Office Wednesday evening. She is marrying her partner of five years.

In Seattle, the mood was festive. Volunteers distributed roses, coffee and fruit. Couples canoodled to keep warm. Champagne was poured. Different groups of men and women serenaded the waiting line, one to the tune of "Going to the Chapel."

People in line said they just couldn't wait one more day to get their marriage licenses.

"We're now going to be married. She can change her name. Our kids will have the same last name. It's going to be a real family," said Emily Maltby who waited in line with her partner Marlene Hillyer.

"To be able to say this is my wife and not have people question it," said Hillyer, "is just amazing."

The King County auditor's office will be open all day Thursday until 6:30 p.m. It will be open Friday, December 7, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Saturday, December 8, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Thurston County Auditor's Office in Olympia also opened at 12:01 a.m. to issue marriage licenses.

Governor Gregoire signed R-74 into law earlier Wednesday legalizing same-sex marriages.

"This is a very important and historic day in the great state of Washington," Gregoire said before signing the measure that officially certified the election results. "For many years now we've said one more step, one more step. And this is our last step for marriage equality in the state of Washington."

Referendum 74 in Washington state 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 state has a three-day waiting period after a license is issued, so couples will have to wait until Sunday before weddings can take place.

Several ceremonies are expected on Sunday across the state. Seattle City Hall will open for several hours with judges donating their time to marry couples. Mayor Mike McGinn's office says more than 140 couples have registered to be married beginning at 10:00 a.m.

Couples who've been wed in other states do not have to get remarried. Their marriages will now be recognized in Washington.

Washington, Maine, and Maryland became the first states to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote in last month's election.

Legislators passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage and Gregoire signed it into law in February, but it was put on hold pending the outcome of the election.

Churches and other religious organizations are not required to perform gay weddings and they cannot be penalized for refusing a wedding.

A domestic partnership law has been in effect in Washington state since 2007. It granted couples hospital visitation, inheritance rights, and about 20 other rights. The law expanded two more times to include the "everything but marriage" law that voters upheld in 2009.

There are nearly 10,000 domestic partnership registrations with the secretary of state's office. Most same-sex domestic partnerships that aren't ended prior to June 30, 2014, automatically become marriages, unless one of the partners is 62 or older.

That provision was included in the state's first domestic partnership law of 2007 to help heterosexual seniors who don't remarry out of fear they could lose certain pension or Social Security benefits.

Among those getting marriage licenses Thursday was gay rights activist Dan Savage, who will marry his partner on Sunday with other couples at Seattle City Hall.

"It's been a long fight but it ain't over," he said. "We still have to fight (the Defense of Marriage Act) and there's 41 other states were same-sex couples aren't allowed to marry."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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