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MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida's first same-sex weddings took place in Miami on Monday, shortly before gay and lesbian couples were to begin tying the knot elsewhere in the 36th U.S. state to legalize gay marriage.
Circuit Court Judge Sarah Zabel paved the way for some couples in Miami-Dade County to get a jump-start on their weddings when she lifted a stay on her earlier decision finding the state's gay marriage ban unconstitutional.
Amid cheers and tearful embraces, Zabel later presided over the marriages of two Florida couples in ceremonies witnessed by a throng of media.
When asked by the judge for their rings, Karla Arguello, 37, replied that she and partner Cathy Pareto had already worn them for 15 years.
"Our son is finally going to have a family and not be a second-class citizen," said Pareto, 42, one of the people who sued over the ban.
Same-sex marriage licenses will be issued in the rest of the state starting just after midnight on Tuesday, when a stay expires on a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee, who also struck down the ban approved by Florida voters in 2008.
The U.S. Supreme Court last month declined a request from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to extend the stay on Hinkle's ruling.
In Broward County, which includes the city of Fort Lauderdale, marriage licenses will be handed out starting at 12:01 a.m. and a mass wedding will follow at 3 a.m., according to the local clerk's website.
Crowds are also expected elsewhere overnight, with marriage licenses to be issued after midnight in the Florida Keys and Osceola County in the central part of the state.
Some Florida courthouses will not be hosting ceremonies after issuing licenses. Clerks in a number of conservative regions decided to end all wedding ceremonies as they faced the prospect of same-sex marriages.
The legalization of gay marriage in Florida means about 70 percent of Americans now live in states permitting same-sex marriage, almost double the number a year ago, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group.
Supporters of Florida's ban vowed to continue their fight. U.S. Supreme Court justices are meeting on Friday to discuss whether to take up the gay marriage issue.
"Today is not the end," said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, which campaigned for the ban.
Additional reporting by Bill Cotterell in Tallahassee, Fla.; Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Susan Heavey, Bill Trott and Peter Cooney