MIAMI — Miami-Dade County became the first place in Florida to allow same-sex couples to marry on Monday, half a day before a gay-marriage ban that has been ruled unconstitutional is lifted in the rest of the state.

Weddings began around 1:30 p.m., less than three hours after Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel lifted the legal stay she had placed on her sweeping July decision declaring the ban discriminatory.

Two of the six couples who had sued – Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello of Coconut Grove, and Jeff and Todd Delmay of Hollywood – were the first to be married, by Zabel herself.

The couples exchanged rings surrounded by family, friends and a pack of television crews at downtown Miami’s historic civil courthouse following Zabel’s 11 a.m. ruling.

“In the big picture, does it really matter whether or not I lift the stay or leave it until tomorrow?” Zabel said from the bench. “I’m lifting the stay.”

The elected clerk of courts, Harvey Ruvin, at first said same-sex marriages would begin at 2 p.m. But once his office received a signed copy of Zabel’s two-page order at noon, he let couples apply for marriage licenses immediately.

“All of our offices are now fully prepared to follow the judge’s order, and everyone will be treated equally,” said Ruvin, a Democrat in a nonpartisan post.

Same-sex couples are now able to marry in 36 states and Washington D.C. The ruling also means gay marriages performed outside Florida will be recognized in Miami-Dade.

Cheers erupted in the courthouse with Zabel’s decision. Some of the plaintiff couples cried tears of joy. Outside, surrounded by media members, they held hands and raised their arms in victory.

“I feel good. I am relieved. I feel vindicated,” said Pareto. She and Arguello, her partner of more than 14 years, arrived in cream-colored dresses, ready to get hitched. They were the first couple to later obtain a marriage license.

“Finally,” Arguello said. “Finally, our family will not be treated any differently.”

The Delmays bought $10 silver wedding bands while on vacation in Hawaii 12 years ago and have worn them on their right hands ever since. On Monday, they switched the rings to their left hands once their union was legal.

“We have been reserving that spot for when it became official,” Todd Delmay said as he held his husband’s hand. “This means so much to us.”