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NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City officials began offering wedding-like ceremonies for same-sex couples on Thursday, drawing as much criticism as praise from gay rights advocates who want nothing short of full marriage rights.
The ceremonies provide no new rights or advantages to same-sex couples -- other than the opportunity to have a wedding in the city's renovated marriage bureau.
The city has allowed gay and lesbian couples to register as domestic partners since 1993 but the additional rights conferred upon them lack validity outside city limits. Domestic partnership bestows gay couples more rights, such as bereavement leave, health insurance benefits and hospital visits as family members.
Now the city is hoping to attract same-sex partners to its marriage bureau, which underwent a $12.3 million renovation and re-opened last year in a direct challenge to Las Vegas as a destination for people to get married. The bureau features a floral and bridal gift shop and two simple, yet elegant chapels where couples are married by a marriage clerk.
The new rules allowing the same-sex ceremonies took effect on Thursday, but only two same sex couples turned up for the ceremony, said City Clerk spokesman Michael McSweeney.
Some gay rights advocates criticized the move as doing nothing to move closer to granting gay couples full recognition in New York state.
"It's a cheap ploy," said Jeff Campagna, founder of The Power, a gay rights organization. "What they're saying is pay $35, have a pretend marriage license ... it's a way to increase the coffers of the city, without increasing any benefits to the gay community."
Last December, New York's state senate rejected a bill that would have legalized gay marriage, despite popular support for the issue. Only the states of Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont have legalized gay marriage. The District of Columbia began allowing same-sex marriages earlier this year.
Forty other states have specific laws banning it. Voters in Maine repealed a gay marriage law recently and the New Jersey legislature rejected a gay marriage bill.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn hopes the commitment ceremonies in New York City will pressure the state legislature in Albany to extend more rights to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, also known as the LGBT community.
"We are sending a message to Albany that New York City is doing everything we can to recognize the LGBT community ... giving domestic partners benefits, recognizing same sex marriages performed elsewhere, but the state is the only one who can take the next step," said Quinn, a lesbian.
McSweeney of the city clerk's office, which operates the marriage bureau, said the commitment ceremonies fit with the city's tourism strategy.
"We are always thinking of new ways of improving how we do our business ... but the idea is to also allow domestic partners the opportunity to proclaim their commitment to one another in a public setting, where they can invite their family and friends and have the same dignity as people who have a wedding ceremony," McSweeney said.
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Paul Simao