Gay and lesbian couples across New Jersey began claiming their right to the legal benefits of marriage early Thursday in ceremonies that formalized their relationships as civil unions.

The state law establishing civil unions for same-sex couples took effect Monday. But because there is a 72-hour waiting period after applying for a license, most couples had to wait until Thursday to hold civil union ceremonies.

New Jersey is the third state in the nation to offer civil unions, which provide same-sex couples the same legal protections as marriage — but without the same title. Vermont and Connecticut also offer civil unions, and California offers domestic partnerships with benefits similar to civil unions. Massachusetts is the only state to allow same-sex marriages.

In Asbury Park, a shore community being revitalized largely by a growing gay population, two couples were joined in after-midnight ceremonies at a party sponsored by Garden State Equality, a gay rights advocacy group.

The event was part ceremony, part political rally. Two couples who were joined were read two sets of vows. First, the Rev. Bob Krieset asked the couples — Thomas Mannix and Kevin Pilla, Degn Schubert and Mark Rado — to vow to continue fighting for the right to marry. Then Mayor Kevin Sanders officiated in the exchange of civil union vows.

Sanders provided a moment of levity by reminding the couples, "There are civil unions but no civil divorces, so you're all stuck."

All of it happened in front of a banner that proclaiming "Civil Union/Momentum to Marriage Week."

For Schubert and Rado, ceremonies to memorialize their benefits are becoming old hat. They have had seven so far, including domestic partnerships in San Francisco and the state of California and a marriage ceremony in San Francisco in 2004. The state ordered that annulled, however. For Thursday's vows, they wore matching suits.

Rado said the New Jersey recognition was the most important because it comes with the most protections and benefits.

"I just feel lucky that we live in New Jersey," Rado said.

In Lambertville, an arts community 20 miles north of Trenton, Beth Asaro and Joanne Schailey, a couple of 20 years, also entered into a civil union shortly after midnight. In the mid-1980s, the idea that they would have the benefits of marriage would have seemed foreign.

"It was something we never dreamt could happen," Asaro said.

A couple also exchanged vows in the New York City suburb of South Orange. That couple, Marty Finkle and Michael Plake, were surrounded by two dozen friends Monday when they submitted their civil union application.

In October, the state Supreme Court ordered New Jersey legislators to offer gay couples all the benefits of marriage, but left it up to the lawmakers what to call it. They opted for "civil unions" in part because of opposition from legislators who objected on religious grounds to calling it "marriage."

The civil unions law grants same-sex couples hundreds of benefits, including the right to file state taxes jointly and inheritance and child-custody rights. Also, people in civil unions cannot be forced to testify against their partners in criminal court.

The benefits, however, are not recognized by the federal government or in most other states.

Gay rights activists say they'll continue to push for the right to marry in New Jersey, a state with an estimated 20,000 gay couples.

Opponents want to amend the state constitution to specifically ban gay marriage. Forty-five other states have similar bans in laws or state constitutions.