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Chris Christie drops challenge to same-sex marriage in New Jersey

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie abandoned the state's legal challenge to same-sex marriage on Monday, hours after gay couples began tying the knot in the wake of a court ruling.

Christie said that while he disagreed with the court's decision, it "left no ambiguity," making New Jersey the 14th state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

Couples began taking advantage of the new law as soon as they could. Senator-elect Cory Booker officiated at seven weddings in the rotunda at Newark City Hall.

"It is officially past midnight, marriage is now equal in New Jersey," Booker said to applause and cheers.

Booker, who had declined to officiate at weddings as mayor of New Jersey until same-sex couples could be included, pronounced the occasion "one of the most magical moments" of his life.

Mayors in cities and towns including Newark, Jersey City, Red Bank, Asbury Park and Lambertville opened their city halls late Sunday to marry couples as soon as the state's 72-hour waiting period for licenses was over.

Senator-elect Cory Booker marries Orville Bell and Joseph Panessidi in Newark, N.J., early on Monday.Adam Hunger / Reuters

When Booker asked if anyone objected to the marriage of the night's first couple — retired advertising executive Joseph Panessidi and LGBTQ educator Orville Bell — a protester yelled that the marriages were "unlawful in the eyes of God and Jesus Christ," The Associated Press reported.

The protester was then removed, as Booker continued the ceremony, saying he was "not hearing any substantive and worthy objections."

Newlywed Bell said he and his new husband felt they were a part of history.

"We're in our sixties, which means we've seen tremendous history of monumental events," Bell told the AP. "This is one of those monumental events, that I can be here today and say I'm married to another man."

In Lambertville, one of the first couples in the state to join in a civil union seven years ago, were finally married.

"We're floating on air," Beth Asaro told the AP following the ceremony. "It's like winning the Super Bowl," said Joanne Schailey, her wife and partner of 27 years.

The stage for the all the vow-exchanging was set Friday, when the state Supreme Court refused to delay a lower court order that New Jersey should begin recognizing same-sex marriages.

Christie had appealed that lower court order, but on Monday morning, he ordered it dropped.

"Chief Justice Rabner left no ambiguity about the unanimous court's view on the ultimate decision in this matter when he wrote, 'same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today,'" he said in a statement.

Lydia Torres, 44, and Jenelle Torres, 42, hug each other after been married by Senator-elect Cory Booker at City Hall in Newark, N.J., early on Monday.Kena Betancur / Getty Images

"Although the Governor strongly disagrees with the Court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the Court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law.

"The Governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his Administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court."

Hayley Gorenberg, who was the lead lawyer on the case for gay-rights group Lambda Legal, said she experienced "a collision of joy and momentary disbelief" when she heard the news.

"It’s been so long coming and that has been so wrong, and this is so right," she said. "To have all doubt erased is momentous."

New Jersey legally recognizing same-sex marriage sent couples throughout the state into a frantic scramble, with Christie instructing the state’s Department of Health to cooperate with municipalities to issue licenses.

Christie, a Republican with a national profile, is a popular figure in New Jersey, but his move to drop the appeal could cause him some support if he decides to run for president.

While support for gay marriage has increased across the country, that's not the case among Republican primary voters.

An April NBC/WSJ poll found 53% of Americans said they favored gay marriage, but just 27% of Republican respondents supported it.

If the abandoned appeal were to become an issue in a GOP primary, Christie could counter that "activist" judges were responsible, but that would be the same position that Mitt Romney found himself in when he had to explain to a GOP electorate how gay marriage was legalized on his watch as governor of Massachusetts.

The Associated Press and NBC News' Mark Murray, Alexandra Moe and Simon Moya-Smith contributed to this report. 

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