For many people, Diane Marini is an inspiration.

For Marini, yesterday's landmark day when New Jersey first began allowing gay couples the right to apply for civil unions, was bittersweet.

Marini and her partner, Marilyn Maneely, who died in September 2005 from Lou Gehrig's disease, were one of seven original couples who had filed a lawsuit against the state of New Jersey seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The lawsuit paved the way yesterday for hundreds of gay and lesbian couples in New Jersey to form civil unions - which grant same-sex couples the same legal benefits as marriage without the title of marriage.

New Jersey became the third state to offer civil unions, after Vermont and Connecticut. Massachusetts is the only state to allow same-sex marriages.

"I'm thrilled with the fact that the rights are being given to anyone who's in a committed relationship," Marini said yesterday in Collingswood Borough Hall, one of the few municipal buildings open for business on President's Day. "I'm sorry it happened after Marilyn died."

The couple had registered as domestic partners under a 2004 law after Maneely fell ill in early 2005. The domestic partnership gave them limited rights.

Marini, 54, of nearby Haddonfield, went to Collingswood in Camden County yesterday to meet a documentary filmmaker, Pilar Prassas, who has been following the seven plaintiff couples' lawsuit since it was filed in 2002.

Prassas, 28, of Queen Village, said she is hoping to showcase her documentary, "In Sickness and in Health," at a film festival this summer (see www.redstar

The two were on hand as Marge O'Donnell waited for her partner, Connie Pennock, to arrive at borough hall so they could fill in their civil-union-license application. They were one of 10 couples who did so in Collingswood yesterday.

When Pennock walked into the building after her shift at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where she works as a medical technologist, O'Donnell danced toward her, singing: "Get me to the church on time."

The couple then sat side-by- side, filling out their personal information on the same form, their right hands writing in unison. A borough hall banner above their heads stated: "Collingswood, New Jersey. 'It's Where You Want to Be.' "

O'Donnell, an educational consultant and a nondenominational minister, yesterday called Marini "my inspiration."

O'Donnell and Pennock, like all new civil-union applicants and marriage applicants, must wait 72 hours before they can pick up their license. People have to apply in the towns where they live.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in October that gay couples were entitled to the same rights and benefits of marriage as heterosexual couples, but left the decision of what to call such unions to the Legislature. The Legislature in December decided to call them "civil unions," not marriages.

Colleen O'Connell, 59, and her partner, Connie Youkon 56, also went to Collingswood Borough Hall yesterday to fill in their application. They were happy, but not completely satisfied.

"This is still second-class," said O'Connell. "What do we call us? I wish we were getting our marriage license. . . . What? We're civilized? We're unionized?"

Youkon added: "I'm glad that we're at this juncture. However, it would be great if we have marriage. Then, there is no question as to what civil union means."

Yet, "civil union is a far cry from the '50s or '60s when people couldn't say they were gay," Youkon said.

O'Connell added that they still plan to fight for marriage recognition through their activism with Garden State Equality, a political-action organization for gay and lesbian rights.

"This doesn't get the Legislature off the hook," O'Connell said.

A few places, such as in Lambertville and Asbury Park, opened their doors at 12:01 a.m. yesterday to allow gay couples the earliest possible time to get their civil-union paperwork.

Mayor David DelVecchio of Lambertville, an artsy town in Hunterdon County known for its tolerance, said its city hall was open from midnight to 12:50 a.m. Four Lambertville couples took advantage of the early-morning opening, DelVecchio said.

Asbury Park's city hall also opened for an hour starting at midnight yesterday. It reopened from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Six couples who live in town filled out applications by yesterday's closing time.

"It's great, unbelievable, joyous," said Tomek Kiki, the town's registrar. "I kind of know these people anyhow. I already did their domestic partnerships. This was just a bigger step." *