CONCORD, N.H. – Jubilant gay couples have rung in the New Year in New Hampshire with wedding vows to celebrate the state's new law legalizing same-sex marriage.
At midnight, New Hampshire joined Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa in allowing gay marriage.
About 15 couples braved the cold to exchange vows outside the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord. Others planned private ceremonies around the state.
The law grants no new rights to gays but eliminates the separate status for civil unions.
Couples already in civil unions have three options to convert their statuses to marriages. They can have marriage ceremonies, file marriage paperwork with their town clerks to convert their statuses during 2010 or wait until the unions are automatically converted in 2011.
The marriage law grants no new rights to gays, who two years ago won the right to civil unions, but it eliminates the separate status so both heterosexual and homosexual couples will be considered married.
Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who personally opposes gay marriage, signed the legislation after lawmakers passed key language affirming religious rights. The law spells out that churches and religious groups can't be forced to officiate at gay marriages or provide other services.
Through late December, 40 gay couples had applied for marriage licenses valid for 90 days, said Stephen Wurtz, acting director of the state division of vital records. In 2009, 188 civil unions were performed with eight licenses still outstanding. Forty-two civil unions have been dissolved, though some were performed in Vermont. In 2008, 621 civil unions were performed.
Some couples — like Burr, 51, and Blair, 46 — plan to wed quickly. A few may gather at the Statehouse to ring in the New Year by exchanging vows in a general celebration. Others want to wait to honor non-legally binding commitment anniversaries from years past.
Canterbury residents Beth McGuinn and Ruth Smith, like Burr and Blair, spent thousands of dollars on a commitment ceremony in 1993, then exchanged civil union vows right after midnight Jan. 1, 2008, wearing mittens and caps around a campfire. Smith, 46, remembers getting goose bumps, not from the cold but from watching state Sen. Harold Janeway, a justice of the peace, sign their paperwork making their union official.
They plan to get married, but not until Oct. 2, the date of their original commitment ceremony.
"This is big. It may not give us anything more, but we have fought almost two decades for this," said McGuinn, 48. "The word marriage means a lot. It's universally recognized. It's not about rights. It's about being accepted. It's about being part of the community and part of society."
The retired Rev. Eleanor McLaughlin and her partner of 19 years, Elizabeth Hess, of Randolph, climbed a mountain and exchanged rings the summer of 1991 but didn't enter a civil union. They waited for marriage. Both devout Episcopalians, they designed their ceremony Saturday to reflect the state's role in civil marriage and their church's role in blessing the union.
McLaughlin, 74, and Hess, 62, plan on exchanging marriage vows in the vestibule of St. Barnabas Church in Berlin, then following with a church ceremony at which Episcopal Bishop Gene V. Robinson, who is openly gay, will bless the union.
Winter's starkness is their wedding theme.
"We want people to recognize we had to wait a long, long time," Hess said.
New Hampshire joins Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa in allowing gay marriage in a move that reflects the state's changing demographics from reliably Republican and conservative to younger and more liberal. Also this year, the District of Columbia's city council voted to legalize gay marriage. Congress has final say, but the district's nonvoting delegate to Congress expects no opposition.
The year also marked a setback for gays seeking marriage equality. Maine lawmakers approved gay marriage, but voters overturned the law in a referendum.
California briefly allowed gay marriage before a public vote in 2008 banned it; a court ruling grandfathered in couples who were already married.
Burr and Blair said New Hampshire's marriage law, while important, does not grant them full equality.
"We're halfway there," Blair said. "We got the state rights. We had civil unions. Now we have marriage. But until we get full equal rights under the federal law, we'll never be there. We'll never be truly equal."