Germany's gays can exchange vows at partnership ceremonies and receive some of the same rights as heterosexual marriages under a new law that went into effect on Wednesday despite fierce opposition from some conservatives.
The first ceremony complete with wedding rings was taking place in Hanover early on Wednesday, one of many planned across the country to celebrate the end of a decadeslong struggle by gay rights groups to bring Germany into line with countries such the Netherlands and Sweden.
"For gays and lesbians in Germany it's a huge step forward after a long battle," said Volker Beck, a prominent lawmaker from the Green party, which has fought for the new legislation.
"The law will make a lot of people very happy," said Beck, who is to be a witness for a couple's ceremony in Hamburg.
The new law allows gay couples to exchange vows at local government offices and requires a court decision for divorce. Samesex couples also will receive rights given heterosexual spouses in areas such as inheritance and health insurance.
The law was passed by the lower house of parliament last year, but the upper house where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's coalition of the Social Democrats and Greens lacks a majority voted to withhold some tax privileges granted to heterosexual couples.
Berlin's mayor sent symbolic congratulations Tuesday to one gay and one lesbian couple who will register their relationships in Berlin.
"You have taken the first step into new territory," wrote Klaus Wowereit, who became Germany's most prominent openly gay politician when he took power in June.
Couples in three states Bavaria, MecklenburgWestern Pomerania and Hesse will have to wait before they can tie the knot, as authorities there haven't completed arrangements to implement the new law.
Germany's highest court is considering an application to force conservativeled Bavaria to put the new law into effect immediately, but wasn't expected to rule in time. Gay groups planned to protest in Munich, the state capital.
Bavaria, along with the eastern state of Saxony, unsuccessfully sought an injunction in Federal Constitutional Court to prevent the law from taking effect August 1 arguing that the law violates constitutional provisions protecting marriage and the family. That complaint still awaits a decision by the court.
The head of parliament's legal committee, Rupert Scholz of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, told German radio Tuesday he still considers the law "constitutionally highly questionable."
Gay activists protested on Tuesday by smashing dishes in front of the Bavarian government's office in Berlin.
Germany's move brings it into line with a number of other European countries. Denmark, France and Norway are among countries that have given homosexual couples legal status. The Netherlands legalized samesex marriages in April.
"It doesn't fulfill everyone's wishes and dreams, but it's a great step forward," Wowereit said. "It should cause something that was never abnormal to be recognized as normal everywhere in Germany."