ASBURY PARK, N.J. (AP) _ Gay couples across New Jersey began claiming the same legal rights as married couples 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 offer the protections and benefits of marriage _ but not the title. Vermont and Connecticut also offer civil unions, and California offers domestic partnerships with similar benefits. 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 ceremonies after midnight at a party sponsored by Garden State Equality, a gay rights advocacy group.
The event was part ceremony, part political rally. Two couples were read two sets of vows. The Rev. Bob Krieset asked the couples _ Thomas Mannix and Kevin Pilla, and Degn Schubert and Mark Rado _ to vow to continue fighting for the right to marry. Then Mayor Kevin Sanders led the exchange of civil union vows.
For Schubert and Rado, such ceremonies are becoming old hat. They have had seven so far, including domestic partnerships and a marriage ceremony, both in San Francisco. The state of California ordered that marriage annulled, however.
The couple wore matching suits for Thursday's vows. 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,'' he said.
In Lambertville, an arts community 20 miles north of Trenton, Beth Asaro and Joanne Schailey, who have been together for 20 years, also entered into a civil union shortly after midnight.
``It was something we never dreamt could happen,'' Asaro said of their new benefits.
A couple also exchanged vows in the New York City suburb of South Orange. Three days earlier, Marty Finkle and Michael Plake were surrounded by two dozen friends 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.
Opponents want to amend the state constitution to specifically ban gay marriage. Forty-five other states have either laws or amendments with such bans.