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Maine gets set to ring wedding bells for same-sex couples

(Reuters) - Same-sex couples in Maine were counting down the hours on Friday until the first wedding bells were due to ring, less than two months after state residents approved gay marriage in a historic vote.

The city clerk's office in Portland, the state's largest city with a metropolitan population of 250,000, planned to open a minute after midnight and stay open for three hours to accommodate same-sex couples rushing to wed. City clerk offices in Maine typically are closed on Saturdays.

Along with voters in Maryland and Washington state, Maine residents approved same-sex unions on November 6, Election Day, becoming the only states to pass such a measure by popular vote.

Nine of the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. now have legalized gay marriage. Another 31 states have passed constitutional amendments banning it.

In Bangor, Maine, the city clerk's office was planning to be open on Saturday from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. for residents to obtain marriage licenses.

The Brunswick town clerk's office was set to be open from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday by appointment and, as of midday on Friday, five same-sex couples had booked appointments, the office said.

Same-sex weddings are being booked starting in the spring at the On the Marsh Bistro in Kennebunk, said owner Denise Rubin.

"We support it wholeheartedly," she said. "We look forward to being part of a whole new wave of wonderful thinking."

The tide of public opinion has been shifting in favor of allowing same-sex marriage. In May, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to say he believed same-sex couples should be allowed to get married.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review two challenges to federal and state laws that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The nation's highest court said this month it will review a case against a federal law that denies married same-sex couples the federal benefits that heterosexual couples receive.

It also will look at a challenge to California's ban on gay marriage, known as Proposition 8, which voters narrowly approved in 2008.

Washington state's law legalizing same-sex unions took effect on Sunday, December 9, and Maryland's law takes effect on January 1, 2013.

A Pew Research Center survey from October found 49 percent of Americans favored allowing gay marriage, with 40 percent opposed.

(Reporting and writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; editing by Paul Thomasch and David Gregorio)

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