Thousands of enthusiastic Minnesotans converged on the Capitol lawn Tuesday to witness a state milestone in marriage equality.

"By your political courage you join that pantheon of exceptional leaders who did something extraordinary," a triumphant Gov. Mark Dayton told the masses in an outdoor ceremony where he signed the bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota. "You changed the course of history for our state and our nation."

Cheers filled the air as more than 7,000 Minnesotans erupted in the kind of celebration seldom seen at a bill signing. Supporters hugged, kissed and yelled as Minnesota became the 12th state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage. The first marriages will be permitted in August.

Margie Wherritt and Jo Ericksen drove up from Rochester to be part of the ceremony.

Wherritt beamed at her wife. "When I figured out I was gay, I was 14 … I'm now 63," she said. "Never did I believe that I would live in a state where I could marry my knight in shining armor. It's time. It's time."

"This is history being made," Ericksen said with a smile.

Dayton was joined at the ceremony by chief sponsors Rep. Karen Clark and Sen. Scott Dibble, both DFL-Minneapolis. They were surrounded by dozens of legislators who had voted in favor of the measure, as well as several gay and lesbian advocates who had long fought for marriage equality. After the bill signing, the swirling crowd paraded from the Capitol through streets in St. Paul hung with rainbow flags for the occasion.

The sweat trickled down Craig Jacobson's neck as he played French horn in the Freedom Band, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender group of musicians that led the parade to downtown's Ecolab Plaza, where a carnival atmosphere reigned.

Once there, thousands sipped beer, celebrated and listened to free, live music. Headlining the evening was renowned Twin Cities band the Suburbs. During the legalization effort, the group had donated the use of their 1980s hit, "Love is the Law."

Dayton acknowledged the political path to Tuesday's parade and party had been a difficult one.

"That progress has often been difficult, controversial and initially divisive," Dayton said. "However, it has always been the next step ahead to fulfilling this country's promise to every American."

Challenges ahead

Legalization is not expected to dull the furor over the issue, and court challenges are expected. The U.S. Supreme Court also is considering the issue and is expected to deliver a ruling this year. Minnesotans remain starkly divided. Many critics have said they cannot accept same-sex marriages, no matter the law, because God created marriage as the sacred union of man and woman. Several churches plan prayer vigils into the week.

"You have to hang your head in shame over this," said Jim Zondlo, of northeast Minneapolis. "A cloud will be forever over the state of Minnesota."

Tuesday's signing follows emotionally wrenching debates in the House and Senate and months of relentless lobbying by both sides. Polls show the state and nation remain divided on gay marriage, but with acceptance growing.

After the long divisive fight over the vote, Tuesday's event was notable for its peaceful nature, with only an occasional protester, sprinkled among the supporters who spread blankets on the grass, sharing picnics and stories.

It takes two hands for Lauren Wyeth to count the ways she and her partner have pledged their commitment over their 24 years: Various domestic partnership ceremonies, a California wedding during the brief window when it was legal there.

"This would be the sixth," Allison Wyeth said. "We've gotten married a lot."

Lauren Wyeth quickly jumped in: "But to the same person."

As the crowd departed for the street party, Brian Gerber, 30, played "America the Beautiful" on a tin whistle in the shade. "I just feel awesome," he exclaimed. "All the ups and downs and the journey on the way here has been just incredible. Five years is summed up in that one moment that the governor signed the bill? Yeah, it's just awesome."

Staff writers Jennifer Brooks, Joy Powell and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report.

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044