Gay couples began exchanging marriage vows here Monday, marking the first time a state has granted gays and lesbians the right to marry and making the United States one of four countries where homosexuals can legally wed.
Tanya McCloskey, 52, and Marcia Kadish, 56, of Malden went at a breakneck pace to fill out paperwork, get a waiver from the three-day waiting period, then return to city hall - where they got their marriage license and exchanged vows.
At 9:15 a.m., Cambridge City Clerk Margaret Drury told the couple: "I now pronounce you married under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
It was among the first - if not the first - same-sex weddings anticipated to take place throughout the state on Monday, the day that under a court order same-sex couples could wed.
"It was really important to us to just be married. We want to be married as soon as we possibly can. Part of it is, we don't know what the Legislature is going to do," McCloskey said.
In Boston, the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the landmark ruling - Hillary and Julie Goodridge - sought a marriage license so they could be married later in the day.
It was three years ago that they were turned away when they sought a marriage license. This time, Mayor Thomas Menino greeted them personally.
"Next to the birth of our daughter, this is the happiest day of our lives," Julie Goodridge said.
"It's exhilarating, it's absolutely thrilling, it's overwhelming, I'm so happy," Hillary Goodridge said.
There were scattered protests amid a largely festive atmosphere.
About 15 protesters, most from Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, stood near Cambridge City Hall carrying signs with anti-gay slogans Sunday night. The group, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., travels around the country protesting homosexuality.
But Ray McNulty, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Family Institute, one of the leading organizers of opposition to same-sex marriage, criticized some of the protesters, saying there was no need for hateful speech.
"What's going on down there is legal, and as far as I'm concerned, give those people their happiness for the day," McNulty said.
Massachusetts was thrust into the center of a nationwide debate on gay marriage when the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 in November that gays and lesbians had a right under the state constitution to wed.
In the days leading to Monday's deadline for same-sex weddings to begin, opponents looked to the federal courts for help in overturning the ruling. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.
The SJC's ruling also galvanized opponents of gay marriage in Massachusetts, prompting lawmakers in this heavily Democratic, Roman Catholic state to adopt a state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage but legalize Vermont-style civil unions. The earliest it could wind up on the ballot is 2006 - possibly casting a shadow on the legality of gay marriages taking place in the intervening years.
The city of Cambridge, a liberal bastion that's home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, opened its doors to couples at midnight, and remained open until about 4:30 a.m. Monday.
The first couple to receive marriage paperwork was Marcia Hams, 56, and her partner, Susan Shepherd, 52, of Cambridge. After 27 years together, they sat at a table across from a city official shortly after midnight, filling out forms as their adult son looked on.
"I feel really overwhelmed," Hams said. "I could collapse at this point."
Out-of-state gay couples are likely to challenge Massachusetts' 1913 marriage statute, which bars nonresident couples from marrying in Massachusetts if the union would be illegal in their home state. Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, a gay-marriage opponent, has said that clerks who give licenses to nonresidents may face legal implications.
Still, officials in Provincetown, Worcester and Somerville, have said they will not enforce Romney's order and will give licenses to any couples who ask, as long as they sign the customary affidavit attesting that they know of no impediment to their marriage.
Sure enough, Chris McCary, 43, and his partner of six years, John Sullivan, 37, of Anniston, Ala., were first in line outside town hall in Provincetown on Monday morning.
"This is the most important day of my life," said McCary.
The SJC's ruling touched off a frenzy of gay marriages across the country earlier this year. Even though courts ordered a halt to the wedding march, opponents pushed for a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage, which President Bush has endorsed.
Both sides in the debate say the issue may figure prominently in the November elections across the country.
Candidates for Congress could face pressure to explain their position on the proposed federal constitutional ban, and voters in several states will consider similar amendments to their state constitutions.
In Massachusetts, married couples are entitled to hundreds of rights under state law. But federal rights are not available to gay married couples because federal law defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Massachusetts joins the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada's three most populous provinces as the only places in the world where gays can marry.