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"I now declare you to be husbands, wives and partners," officiant Jean Muchanic said at Sunday's Atlantic City Group Wedding at Boardwalk Hall. "Congratulations, you may now begin your life together with a kiss!"
Muchanic could have written her declaration differently, if the state Senate had passed a bill allowing gay marriage last month. But the legislation failed, so the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority again offered civil unions at its third annual nuptial extravaganza, along with straight weddings and vow renewals.
More than 100 couples attended, a few of them for civil unions or civil-union renewals. With red apparently popular on Valentine's Day, white dresses were in the minority, too.
Olethea Jones wore white. She walked down the aisle with her partner of more than five years, Kametia Miles, who wore a dark suit.
After the last couple entered the ballroom - to the Eddie Morgan Trio's umpteenth rendition of "Here Comes the Bride" on keyboard, snare and trumpet - Muchanic administered the mass vows.
"I," pause, "take you," pause, "to be my marriage partner," she recited twice, as half the crowd repeated with their names each time. Guests flocked to the stage, standing next to Muchanic to shoot photographs of the couples.
Then Muchanic pronounced everyone married, or civilly united.
"For right now, I want to say it's better than nothing," Jones said. "I'm just hoping that eventually (same-sex marriage) will pass and we can have all the same rights as straight couples. We don't see ourselves as any different."
The Bridgeton couple had scheduled an April wedding with 100 guests, but expensive car problems scuttled those plans. They chose Valentine's Day in Atlantic City instead, maxing out their allotment of 10 guests.
"We still wanted to do it this year," Jones said. "We didn't want to wait another year."
Jones, 29, has three daughters, Kiara, 11, Keciana, 9, and Kalia, 8, from a previous relationship. She and Miles, 25, are planning to have another child, which Miles would carry. With their new legal status, they are investigating the particulars of switching Miles to Jones' health insurance.
Travel schedules forced Carrie and Franca Diona, of Barnegat Township, to cancel their plans to renew their 2-year-old civil-union vows in Boardwalk Hall. They hope to leave New Jersey soon anyway.
"We see it as a marriage, but how do you react to a community that doesn't see it as a marriage?" Carrie Diona said by phone Sunday. "I've lived here my whole life, but I'm supporting someone who doesn't support me with my taxes."
The Dionas, both 38, are corporate recruiters.
"As soon as the market picks up, we're out of here," headed for a state where gay marriage is legal, Carrie Diona said. "Massachusetts, here we come!"
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