COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa - Two Lincoln women made the trip across the border into Iowa early Monday to apply for a marriage license.
Sarah Fentress and Bambi Smith were the first couple at the Pottawattamie County Courthouse, arriving around 6:15 a.m. - two hours before it opened.
"Being the first in line really wasn't important," Fentress said. "We thought there would be a lot of people and we were concerned we'd be there all day. We just wanted to get done what we needed to do and enjoy the rest of the day."
Iowa county clerks began processing same-sex marriage applications Monday, following the Iowa Supreme Court's April 3 ruling that made Iowa the third state to legalize same-sex marriages.
Massachusetts and Connecticut allow gay couples to marry, and a Vermont law allowing gay marriage will take effect in September. For six months last year, California allowed gay marriage before voters banned it in November.
In Council Bluffs, the people waiting in line cheered at 8 a.m., when George Farrage, first deputy recorder, came out of the office with the signed Iowa Supreme Court order legalizing same-sex marriage.
"Let's go," Smith said eagerly. Fentress told her to wait a moment, to make sure the clerks were ready.
News cameras swarmed the couple as they walked up to the counter.
"Are you going to take Sarah's last name?" the clerk asked.
Smith put her arm around Fentress as they filled out the paperwork.
The women, who have lived in Lincoln most of their lives, have officially been together almost two years, but they have "loved each other for 22 years," Fentress said.
Fentress, 44, said she and Smith, 45, realized they were not Iowans and their marriage would not be valid back in Nebraska.
"Maybe one day we'll get sick of it and move to Iowa," she said.
The women want to be able to share the same legal benefits that married people have in Nebraska, including the right to visit one another in the hospital, Smith said.
Another couple waiting said they have been in that scenario.
One Sunday morning two years ago, Hersh Rodasky, 58, of Council Bluffs woke up sick. He thought he might have pneumonia, so his partner, Mike Yowell, 53, drove him to the hospital.
After parking the car, Yowell said, he asked hospital staff if he could see Rodasky. They told him only family members were allowed to see patients.
"Now if it happens again, they can't deny me access to him," Yowell said.
The couple have been together 28 years and have an adopted daughter and two grandchildren.
Kim Smith, 47, of Carter Lake, Iowa, and 47-year-old Joni Cleveland have been together 27 years.
They're not getting married to make a political statement, Kim Smith said. They just want to be able to protect each other in the future.
"This won't make me feel any more committed than I have the last 27 years," she said.
Karen Perdue, co-chair of the Council Bluffs Community Alliance, said many same-sex couples she knows have been waiting to get married for more than 20 years.
"This is about them finally getting to celebrate," Perdue said. "We're going to be like everyone else. Isn't it great to be an Iowan?"
Thomas Clark, 39, of Council Bluffs said the Iowa state motto - "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain" - had never meant so much to him as it did Monday.
"I would never have believed Iowa would be so socially progressive," said Clark, who applied for a marriage license with 36-year-old David Jones, his partner of 14 years.
"I'm so proud," Clark said. "People in Iowa will be able to tell their grandchildren, 'we stood up (against) social injustice.'"
The state's same-sex marriage case began in 2005 when Lambda Legal, a New York gay rights group, sued on behalf of six gay and lesbian Iowa couples.
Gay marriage opponents have no other legal options to appeal the case to the state or federal level because they were not parties to the lawsuit, and no federal issue was raised in the case.
The only recourse appears to be a constitutional amendment, which couldn't get on the ballot until 2012 at the earliest. A constitutional convention could be called earlier, but is unlikely.
Rumors surfaced over the past week that some country recorders would refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Some conservative groups and lawmakers were accused of trying to encourage recorders to refuse licenses.
State agencies told county recorders last week they could be removed from their positions if they don't follow the law.
Polk County, where Des Moines is located, appears to have issued the most same-sex marriage licenses Monday. There were 82 applications by 3 p.m., said County Recorder Julie Haggerty.
Pottawattamie County - across the Missouri River from Omaha - had received 25 applications by 3:15 p.m., Farrage said.
Fremont County, east of Nebraska City, received at least one same-sex marriage application, and Woodbury County near South Sioux City received about six.
Back at the Pottawattamie County Courthouse, the couples waiting in line applauded as Fentress and Bambi Smith stepped away from the counter, their application complete.
Iowa typically requires a three-day waiting period for marriages, and the women plan to return next week to be married.
They will have a bigger celebration in Lincoln this summer with their children, ages 2, 10, 22 and 26.
Fentress and Smith gave each other a big hug in the elevator before walking out, hand-in-hand.
Peter Hamel, 48, and Mark Volenec, 48, wore T-shirts that declared "Marriage is so gay" when they applied for their license.
The Omaha couple, who have been together five years, were married in San Diego last September.
"Right now, we're kind of in limbo with that one," said Volenec, referring to California's subsequent gay marriage ban. "If we have to get married in all 50 states, we will."
Hamel said people sometimes asked them why they didn't move to one of the states that recognized gay unions.
"It's kind of crazy," he said. "We can walk across the Bob Kerrey Bridge (between Council Bluffs and Omaha) and be married, and then walk back and not be married."
Reach Hilary Kindschuh at 473-7120 or email@example.com. This story contains information from The Associated Press.