The United Kingdom opened a new era in gay rights as three homosexual couples wed in civil partnership ceremonies on Monday, the first of several hundred nationwide this week - among them Sir Elton John and his partner. "We are delighted. Here's to many more," said Shannon Sickels, a New York playwright, after she and her Northern Ireland partner, Grainne Close, became the first public celebrants of a legally binding gay partnership at Belfast City Hall. Scores of family, friends and gay rights activists tossed flowers and rainbow-colored ribbons out of support. But in keeping with the conservatism of Northern Ireland society, their landmark festivities drew a few dozen Protestant evangelicals who sang hymns and waved "Sodomy is sin" placards. Gay rights activists countered with their own bullhorn-assisted chants of support. A few donning Hitler-style mustaches shadowed the evangelical crowd waving satirical placards that read, "Earth is flat" and "Bring back slavery." Northern Ireland, one of the last regions in the United Kingdom to legalize homosexuality in 1982, became the first on Monday to grant gay couples the same legal protections as married heterosexuals - a measure already in force in many other European countries. Scotland followed on Tuesday, and England and Wales on Wednesday - the day Elton John wed Canadian filmmaker David Furnish. Furnish, a Canadian-born filmmaker, and John have been together for 12 years. Both have said they understand the implications of their union. Cameras flickered as the couple - John wearing purple spectacles and a black suit - walked out arm-in-arm, waving to the photographers and fans who huddled together in the cobbled streets around Windsor's town hall, where Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles wed in April. "God instituted human marriage in the Garden of Eden, and it was one man with one woman. God has not changed that," said the Rev. Ian Brown of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, a fundamentalist denomination founded by Northern Ireland's dominant Protestant politician, Ian Paisley. Such views are more widely held in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. Here, Catholics and Protestants sometimes overcome their political hostility to protest jointly on traditional family issues. Northern Ireland's police force in May reported a surge in gay-hate crimes over the past two years. As same-sex couples arrived at Belfast City Hall, an informal poll on Radio Ulster in Belfast registered about 70 percent opposition to civil partnerships. Denmark in 1989 became the first country to legislate for same-sex partnerships. Several other EU members have followed suit: Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. In the United States, more than a dozen states recognize some form of domestic partnerships or civil unions, but 11 states voted in November to ban gay marriage.