Last summer, a serendipitous encounter with a young, vivacious minister in Birkenstocks helped a Woodbridge couple find a church for their wedding ceremony. Their own church said no way.

Joseph and Kevin Seiger-Cottoms are gay, and their church, Olivet Episcopal Church in Alexandria, does not permit same-sex ceremonies. Although Virginia would not legally recognize their union, they wanted a church ceremony anyway -- even if it was a purely symbolic gesture.

"It made us very upset that we could not have our ceremony at the church we currently attend," said Joseph, 38. "I do the flowers at the church, and I do flowers for other weddings that are held at the church, yet I cannot have my wedding ceremony there. Not even a blessing ceremony."

Some Episcopal dioceses outside Virginia allow such ceremonies, as do a handful of other churches, the couple soon learned.

After a chance meeting at a gay rights event, the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd told the two they would be welcome to exchange vows at Bull Run Unitarian Universalist Church in Manassas.

"Through Nancy's openness and her personality, we felt very comfortable," said Kevin, 30, who in October will commit to Joseph, his partner of more than four years. To further symbolize that commitment, Joseph and Kevin legally joined their surnames in June.

For Joseph, a legal assistant, and Kevin, a substitute teacher, going to Massachusetts, the only state that allows same-sex marriages, was out of the question because they did not want to leave behind family and friends. Joseph shares custody of 11-year-old twins with his ex-wife, and both have friends from their children's PTA, their church, a theater group and work colleagues. Signing a piece of paper was not what they wanted.

"We're going to actually experience the incredible feeling of both walking down the aisle of that church and being put in front of family and friends and taking vows and being able to look back on zillions of pictures," Joseph said. "That's a big deal to us."

The Unitarian Universalist Church advocates vigorously for gay rights and has done so since the 1960s. As the issue has roiled the country in recent years, the church has stepped up its activism and reaffirmed one of its seven core principles: promoting "the inherent worth and dignity of all people." Some of its churches have been performing same-sex ceremonies since the 1970s.

The stance on gay marriage, ministers say, has made the church particularly popular in the gay community. Ladd said she has seen an increased interest in the church from gays since the high court in Massachusetts allowed same-sex marriage. In her first year as minister, Ladd has officiated mostly gay weddings -- about a half-dozen, which is more than some churches three times bigger.

"I'm all too honored and saddened" to do the services, she said, "because gay couples need something that their home churches can't give them."

The Rev. Michael McGee, lead team minister of Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, concurs. "They find that this is a place that's friendly to them and speaks to their needs and speaks to their humanity."

With the United Church of Christ's endorsement of gay ceremonies early last month, advocates had much to celebrate this summer, including Canada and Spain becoming the third and fourth countries -- after the Netherlands and Belgium -- to formally legalize same-sex marriage. But in the United States, almost every state defines marriage as between a man and a woman. The law in Massachusetts is being challenged. Six other states provide some recognition of the relationships, ranging from civil unions to domestic partnerships that confer some, but not all, of the benefits of marriage.

Kevin and Joseph knew their marriage would not be legal when they became engaged in November, the month when 11 states amended their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. But "you really can't wait for the state to validate your relationship," Kevin said.

And however heated the gay marriage debate is within their Episcopal church, Joseph and Kevin will not be leaving it anytime soon.

Though they are thankful to the Unitarian Universalists for welcoming them, they said they could not leave their home congregation, where they have participated in the children's ministry.

"People say to us, how can we go there?" Joseph said of the Episcopal church.

"Because we've been accepted," said Kevin, finishing his partner's sentence.

"They're a part of us," Joseph added.

Kevin, left, and Joseph Seiger-Cottoms arrange a display at Olivet Episcopal Church, where they worship but are not allowed to marry. Instead, they'll be married at Bull Run Unitarian Universalist Church in Manassas.