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Dutch gay couples legally marry

Gert Kasteel, left, and Dolf Pasker kiss after exchanging vows at Amsterdam's City Hall just after midnight on Sunday  

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- Four gay couples have exchanged rings and vows at Amsterdam's City Hall in the first same-sex marriages recognised by any country.

Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen officiated at the ceremony for three male couples and one female couple, which took place immediately after the law permitting gays to wed took effect at midnight on Saturday.

It was the denouement of a 15-year campaign to allow gay couples equal rights under civil law. The legislation easily passed through both houses of parliament last year.

Standing around a semicircular conference table, the couples held hands as Cohen went one-by-one asking if he or she accepted his or her partner as spouse.

"And now we have the marriage of two men and two women," Cohen said to conclude.

Four homosexual couples are the first to wed under the Netherlands' new marriage laws. CNN's Jennifer Eccleston reports

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A packed meeting hall burst into applause, but all eight newlyweds stood awkwardly, unsure what to do until Cohen told them they could congratulate each other. Then they kissed and embraced.

He distributed a ring to each partner, then asked each to sign a marriage registry. "In the Netherlands, we have gained the insight that an institution as important as marriage should be open to everyone," he said in brief remarks concluding the event.

One witness, Philip Vos, remarked on the momentousness of the occasion. "I'm gay, but even I'm going to have to get used to this," he said.

Foreigners hoping to get married in the Netherlands will be disappointed. Only Dutch nationals or resident foreigners living with a Dutch partner will be eligible for same-sex marriages.

Before becoming Amsterdam's mayor two months ago, Cohen served as the government official involved in drafting the legislation. Shortly before the ceremony, Cohen told reporters he believed the Dutch law would encourage other countries to assess their views on gay marriages.

The couples were welcomed by applause from family and supporters as they arrived for the ceremony, but a handful of demonstrators protested against what they called an unnatural union.

Protesters hold a banner that reads: "Lets return to the Lord" prior to the gay marriages  

"We hope these people will choose to return to the Lord," said Cor de Vries, a 30-year-old protester.

Both women were dressed in wedding gowns with long trains. Four of the men wore formal suits and bow ties, and one couple was outfitted in leather. The ceremony was broadcast live on an Amsterdam television channel.

One couple, Louis Rogman and George Jansen, has been together for 36 years.

The women, Anne-Marie Thus and Helene Faasen, have a nine-month-old son, whom Thus gave birth to after artificial insemination.

"We are so ordinary, if you saw us on the street you'd just walk right past us," Anne-Marie Thus said in an interview before the wedding.

"The only thing that's going to take some getting used to is calling her 'my spouse'," she said from her Amsterdam home.

Gays have enjoyed general acceptance here for years and public surveys show that more than 75 percent of the population supported the equal rights bill.

In Amsterdam, gay pride is celebrated annually with a carnival and parade through the city's famed canals, with tens of thousands of people watching and cheering the colourful floats.

Helene Faasen, left, and Anne-Marie Thus arrive at Amsterdam City Hall on Saturday to become first lesbian couple married under the new law  

The weddings consolidates the Netherlands' position at the forefront of social liberalisation. Last year it legalised brothels and decriminalised euthanasia. The sale of marijuana and hashish is tolerated at coffee bars.

Gays won legal rights with the decline of political power by the traditional religious party and the formation of the first wholly secular coalition in 1994. That government passed legislation allowing gays to register as partners.

Dutch religious parties remain opposed, and the Vatican is forceful in its objections. Last month, Pope John Paul II said again there was no possibility that the church would redefine its view of matrimony, and the Catholic Church has denounced the Dutch move as a "great danger."

Under the new laws, gay couples are able to apply for court approval to adopt children after living together for three years. The law also eliminates legal ambiguities on inheritance, pension rights, taxes and divorce.

Laws governing matrimony, divorce and adoption have dropped all references to gender, and even the dictionary has been amended to eliminate references to "man and woman" in the definition of marriage.

The collective marriage ceremony was the brainchild of Henk Krol, editor of the popular monthly magazine Gay Krant, which led the equal rights campaign.

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Dutch Government
Democrats 66 Party

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4:30pm ET, 4/4

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