updated 12/31/2007 1:56:33 PM ET 2007-12-31T18:56:33

New Hampshire is becoming the fourth U.S. state to legalize civil unions and about 20 couples decided to be the first to take advantage of the new law with a late-night ceremony on the Statehouse steps.

Jennifer Major, who helped organize the group ceremony, said festivities would begin at about 11 p.m. Monday with poetry readings and live music. The civil unions can take place once the law takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

Major and her partner, Kelley Morris, planned to be among the couples saying "I do."

Snow and freezing temperatures were forecast during the night. "I don't have any winter coats with rhinestones and glitter, so I'm just going to dress warmly," Major said.

At the bill signing in May, Gov. John Lynch called civil unions for same-sex couples a matter of conscience. "How could any one of us look into the eyes of our neighbors, our friends or our loved ones if we continued to deny them these basic legal protections?" he said.

New Hampshire joins Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey in legalizing civil unions. Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay marriage.

The new law says civil unions will provide same-sex couples with the rights, responsibilities and obligations of marriage, except the name.

It also says New Hampshire will recognize legal same-sex unions from other states, but a group of conservative Republicans in the Legislature is working to undo that part of the law. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 24.

The state estimated 3,500 to 4,000 civil unions will be performed in the first year.

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