A group of gay and lesbian couples took advantage of a new law that came into force in the US state of New Hampshire yesterday by entering into civil unions in a mass outdoor ceremony.

There were no protestors at the Statehouse in the capital Concord as 37 couples braved sub-zero temperatures just minutes into 2008 and exchanged vows.

“We’ve been together 20 years, we’ve been waiting for this moment for 20 years, finally the state will recognise us as we are,” Julie Bernier, who took her vows with partner Joan Andresen, told AP.

The state representative who introduced the civil unions bill, Jim Splaine, told a crowd of 200 gathered at the Statehouse that “there is more to do” and pledged to work for full marriage equality in the state.

So far 109 couples have registered their intention to enter into a civil union.

Only same-sex couples may enter into a New Hampshire civil union, as long as both parties are at least 18, not a party to another civil union or a marriage and not closely related by blood to their civil partner.

Yesterday New Hampshire became the fourth US state to legalise civil unions. Only Massachusetts has legal gay marriage.

In all nine states have gay and lesbian spousal rights in some form: Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maine, California, Washington and Hawaii.

The state of Oregon was due to offer domestic partnerships from January 1st but a judge delayed the introduction of the law from taking effect until at least February pending legal challenges.