UPDATED 06/01/11 5:52 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Same-sex couples are celebrating what they call a matter of principle, as they file into the Daley Center to get their licenses for civil unions.

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As CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports, applications are now being accepted for civil union licenses across the state. By the time the Cook County Clerk’s Vital Records office opened at 7:30 a.m., some 65 couples were waiting in line.

The first couple, Janean Watkins and Lakeesha Harris, arrived around midnight. They said it was well worth the wait.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time for this to take place,” Harris said while waiting in the predawn hours. “Why wait any longer?”

Other couples were equally ecstatic.

“My heart is filled with joy,” said Jamie Gayle.

“We’re both very excited,” said her partner, Robin Petrovic.

As the clock ticked closer to opening time, the excitement built.

“There are no words to describe it. This is monumental and history-making, and we’re glad to be a part of it,” said Diane Martino, who has been with her partner, Tina Kachold, for 15 years.

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Also in line were Ainsley Gionfriddo and Lance McDonald. They waited until the morning, but not much longer. They said they wanted to be there on the first day, because they missed their chance for same-sex marriage while they lived in California.

“We thought, we’ve been together for so long that we didn’t need to worry about rushing into getting married. We wanted to take our time and do it right, and we ended up missing the window,” McDonald said.

The pair says a civil union is important, as they move forward with adoption proceedings for their 4-year-old son.

At 6 a.m., the couples were brought inside to wait. Finally, Watkins and Harris inched their way up to the counter, where they became the proud recipients of the first civil union in all the history of Cook County.

Many others who longed for the moment followed them. They answered questions and signed their names, just like that.

The law became life-changing.

“Justice!” Harris cried as she walked down the hallway with Watkins. “Finally, justice!”

“We shall overcome – we have!” Watkins chimed in.

“I’ve never seen her cry over something like this,” Watkins said a short time later. “But it means a lot.”

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Harris and Watkins say a civil union license brings greater security for their children.

“Nobody can take you from one of us if something should happen,” Watkins said. “This is legally binding. It’s official.”

Also in line for a civil union license Wednesday were Patrick Bova and James Darby of the Hyde Park neighborhood, who have been waiting for this day for close to half a century.

“It’s an excellent thing,” Bova said Tuesday. “What’s happened now with civil unions, which is equivalent in Illinois to traditional marriage, is that another thing has opened up for gay couples who are in committed relationships, so we’re really happy with that.”

Added Darby: “I think after 47 years of dating, it’s about time, you know. A lot of people get married in a month, or whatever, but I think for us, it will solidify our relationship.”

Bova and Darby will have to get used to a new anniversary now. They have been together for 48 years on July 17th.

The legislation allowing for civil unions in Illinois was signed into law by Gov. Quinn on Jan. 31, after being approved by both houses of the state General Assembly in December.

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Gay rights activist Rick Garcia tells Gay Chicago Magazine he is “ecstatic” as civil unions become law, following the “hard-fought” effort to pass the bill and “keep it from being gutted by those who do not want to see fairness for lesbian and gay couples and their families.”

Cook County Clerk David Orr himself says he is also excited as his office prepares to begin issuing the licenses.

“I’m thrilled this day has finally come,” Orr said in a news release. “This will be a joyous day for all couples – gay and straight – who want to make history as part of the inaugural group of civil unions.”

Orr is currently on assignment in Macedonia, but Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Debra Shore – who is openly lesbian – and key staff from the clerk’s office – made opening remarks before the first license was issued.

Civil unions give same sex and opposite sex couples the same rights as married couples when it comes to parenting, hospital rights, inheritances and more.

But lawmakers have pointed out that legalizing civil unions does not change the legal definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, which currently is spelled out in Illinois state law.

Twenty local businesses have donated gifts for couples who arrive at the clerk’s office.

As the first couple to receive a civil union license, Watkins and Harris won an assortment of prizes, including a two-night stay at the Palmer House Hilton; a $100 gift certificate for Wilde Bar and Restaurant, 3130 N. Broadway; a photo shoot with three complimentary prints from Starbelly Studios Photography; a $50 gift certificate from LaSalle Flowers, 731 N. LaSalle Blvd.; and Eli’s Cheesecake for every anniversary from here on out.

Several other prizes are being offered by raffle, from tickets to “Chinglish” at the Goodman Theatre to a $25 gift certificate from the Transistor arts and music store in Andersonville. The grand prize is a two-hour cruise for the winning couple and 50 guests from Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, which is valued at $2,500.

Coming Thursday is a public commitment ceremony, which will be held in Millennium Park, in Wrigley Square near the corner of Randolph Drive and Michigan Avenue.

Orr will officiate the ceremonies, as will Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans, and members of the Alliance of Illinois Judges, a gay and lesbian judges’ group. Among the officiators will be Circuit Court Judge Tom Chiola, who became the first openly gay judge elected in the county in 1994, Gay Chicago Magazine recently reported.

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Gov. Pat Quinn will also be present, but is not expected to officiate.