Washington state issues first gay marriage licences
Washington state has begun issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples, hours after the governor signed a law legalising gay unions.
It is one of three states that passed gay marriage by popular vote in November.
The first weddings will take place on Sunday, as Washington has a three-day waiting period.
Six other states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage.
Couples who were previously married in another state will not have to be remarried in Washington, as their marriages will be valid as soon as the law takes effect.'Surreal'
King County, the state's largest county and home to Seattle, as well as Thurston County, home to the state capital of Olympia, opened their doors just after midnight on Thursday to start distributing marriage licences.
End Quote Chris Gregoire Washington governor
This is our last step for marriage equality in the state of Washington”
In Seattle, hundreds of people had begun queuing hours before the midnight deadline. The atmosphere was festive, with volunteers handing out roses and coffee while serenading those waiting.
"We knew it was going to happen, but it's still surreal," said Amanda Dollente, who along with her partner, Kelly Middleton, began waiting on Wednesday afternoon.
By 06:00 local time on Thursday, 279 licences had been issued and the queue was gone.
Asked why they opened at midnight, King County executive Dow Constantine said: "People who have been waiting all these years to have their rights recognised should not have to wait one minute longer."
Seattle City Hall will open for several hours on Sunday for the more than 140 couples that have registered to get married there. Several local judges are donating their time to perform ceremonies.
Washington's legislature passed a same-sex marriage law earlier in the year, but it was put on hold after opponents gathered enough petitions to hold a state-wide referendum on the law.
Nearly 54% of voters approved the measure on election day in November.
"This is a very important and historic day in the great state of Washington," Washington Governor Chris Gregoire said on Wednesday.
"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."
The law does not require religious organisations or churches to perform marriages, and it does not subject churches to penalties if they refuse to marry gay or lesbian couples.
Maine and Maryland also passed same-sex marriage through popular vote on 6 November.
Maryland's law officially takes effect on 1 January, but couples can begin picking up marriage licences for that date on Thursday.
Maine's law takes effect on 29 December, and marriages can begin just after midnight.
Washington has had domestic partnerships since 2007, and under the law all partnerships not ended by 30 June 2014 will automatically become marriages.
A federal law still prevents US recognition of gay marriages and many states have enacted outright bans through popular vote.
The Supreme Court is considering whether to take up cases relating to to existing gay marriage laws.