Minnesota and Rhode Island became the 12th and 13th states to recognize gay marriage Thursday, with Rhode Island’s first same-sex weddings performed this morning and Minnesota’s just after midnight:

Dozens of Minnesota gay couples made last-minute preparations Wednesday for midnight marriages, determined to exchange vows at the earliest possible moment under a new state law legalizing same-sex marriage.

Weddings were scheduled to start at the stroke of midnight at Minneapolis City Hall, St. Paul’s Como Park, Mall of America’s Chapel of Love and at county courthouses sprinkled around the state. One group planned a cluster of weddings in a Duluth tavern.

“It feels historic. It’s an honor to be a part of it,” said Tim Roberts, the Stearns County court administrator, who planned to perform a 12:01 a.m. wedding at the courthouse in St. Cloud. . . .

In Minnesota, budget officials assessing the impact of the law estimated that about 5,000 gay couples would marry in the first year. Its enactment capped a fast turnabout on the issue in just over two years. After voters rejected a constitutional ban on gay marriage last fall, the state Legislature this spring moved to make it legal. . . .

At Mall of America, Holli Bartelt and Amy Petrich from the southeastern Minnesota town of Wykoff were set to become the first couple married at the Chapel of Love. Owner Felicia Glass-Wilcox said she hoped to start the ceremony a few minutes early, so the vows could be pronounced seconds after midnight.

“We’d like for them to be able to say they are the very first married in the state, but for sure they’ll be able to say they’re one of the first,” Glass-Wilcox said. She said the chapel had four more gay couples booked for weddings in the next five days.

Bartelt, 33, proposed to Petrich, 37, in April in a photo booth at the Bloomington mall. It was a few weeks before the Legislature approved the law, but Bartelt said she was confident by then that it would pass. She had been in contact with a mall employee about the proposal, who later suggested the couple could be first to get married at the chapel.

Bartelt, a health coach, planned to wear an ivory-colored dress, while Petrich, a baker for Mayo Clinic, was wearing an ivory suit. A group of about 50 family members and close friends were planning to join them, including Bartelt’s 10-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.

“Everybody deserves the right to be happy,” said Bartelt. “That’s really what it’s all about. It’s a big day for us, and a big day for Minnesota, and something I hope my kids look back on some day and say, ‘Wow, we got to be part of that.’”

Associated Press

Advocates for gay rights filed a lawsuit in federal court in Virginia this morning, hoping to overturn that state’s ban on same-sex marriage:

The class-action complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Harrisonburg, was made on behalf of two lesbian couples from rural Staunton and from Winchester in Frederick County. Each couple has one child.

This is the second suit against Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that denied gay couples federal benefits available to married couples. In 2006, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage and denies recognition of same-sex marriages that were legalized in other states.

The lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Virginia and Lambda Legal argues that Virginia’s law treats lesbians, gay men and their children as second-class citizens, denying them rights and protections extended to heterosexual families.

“This is one America. It’s time for the freedom to marry to come to the South,” said Greg Nevins, a senior attorney in Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office in Atlanta. “We do not want a country divided by unfairness and discrimination. Same-sex couples are in loving, committed relationships in every region of our nation and should be treated the same way, whether they live in Maine or Virginia.

Carol Morello

The state will contest the lawsuit:

Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein said the office does not comment on pending litigation, but in wake of the Supreme Court’s June ruling on gay marriage Gottstein made it clear Cuccinelli would defend the state’s constitutional amendment unlike attorneys general in some states, such as Pennsylvania and Illinois.

“Virginia has followed the traditional definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman for more than 400 years, and Virginians voted overwhelmingly to add this traditional definition to their constitution,” Gottstein said in the June 26 statement. ”Consistent with the duties of the attorney general, this office will continue to defend challenges to the constitution and the laws of Virginia.”

Juliet Eilperin

Opinion writer E.J. Dionne writes that the public’s increasing acceptance of gay marriage is partly due to a feeling that allowing same-sex couples to marry strengthens the institution rather than redefining it:

Steadily increasing numbers of Americans have come to believe that gay people are not social revolutionaries looking to alter the nature of marriage. Rather, they are seen as simply wanting to be part of an institution that is already open to their straight fellow citizens. This shift in perspective has been essential in normalizing the idea of gay unions.

The two organizations have been tracking this question: “Do you think gay couples want to join the institution of marriage or change it?” In 2009, Americans were closely divided on this: 50 percent said gay couples wanted to join marriage, while 41 percent said these couples wanted to change it.

In the latest survey, which the organizations will release this week as part of their aptly named “Commitment Campaign,” 58 percent said gay men and lesbians wanted to join the institution and only 27 percent said they were looking to change it. This suggests that an increasing number of Americans reject the culture-war frame when it comes to gay marriage, and that fewer and fewer see it as threatening their own values.

The survey was also striking in showing that Americans make careful distinctions around the religious freedom questions raised by granting gay men and lesbians access to marriage.

On the one hand, 61 percent of Americans said that churches and clergy members should have the right to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony for a gay or lesbian couple. Only 28 percent said they should not. But when it came to non-religious market transactions related to weddings — involving caterers, florists, restaurants and the like — respondents took a very different view. Substantial majorities said that providers of such services should not be able to withhold them from homosexual couples. The public’s broad sensitivity to the specific rights of religious institutions is quite different from an endorsement of a wholesale right for individuals to discriminate against gay people seeking marriage.

Social conservatives especially should take note of where Americans are heading. Because the desire of gay people to live in publicly committed relationships is seen increasingly as an endorsement of marriage as it has long been understood, there are new opportunities to defend marriage itself. We need to lay down arms in the culture wars and face up to the urgency of strengthening families.

E.J. Dionne

The plaintiffs in the Virginia suit are Joanne Harris and Jessica Duff of Staunton and Christy Berghoff and Victoria Kidd of Winchester.