AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine’s governor signed a freshly passed bill Wednesday approving gay marriage, making it the fifth state to approve the practice and moving New England closer to allowing it throughout the region.
New Hampshire legislators were also poised to send a gay marriage bill to their governor, who hasn’t indicated whether he’ll sign it. If he does, Rhode Island would be the region’s sole holdout.
Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat who hadn’t indicated how he would handle his state’s bill, quickly signed it.
“In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions,” Baldacci said in a statement read in his office. “I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law, and that a civil union is not equal to civil marriage.”
The vote by the Maine Senate was 21-13, with one lawmaker absent. The bill authorizes marriage between any two people rather than between one man and one woman, as state law currently allows. The House had passed the bill Tuesday.
The law is to take effect in mid-September but could be sidetracked before then. Opponents promise to challenge it through a public veto process that could suspend it while a referendum takes shape.
Legislative debate was brief. Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, turned the gavel over to an openly gay member, Sen. Lawrence Bliss, D-South Portland, to preside over the final vote.
Republican Sen. Debra Plowman of Hampden argued that the bill was being passed “at the expense of the people of faith.”
“You are making a decision that is not well-founded,” warned Plowman.
But Senate Majority Leader Philip Bartlett II said the bill does not compel religious institutions to recognize gay marriage.
“We respect religious liberties. … This is long overdue,” said Bartlett, D-Gorham.
The activist group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders has targeted all six New England states for passage of a gay marriage law by 2012.
Maine is now the fourth state in the region to allow same-sex marriages. Connecticut enacted a bill after being ordered to allow gay marriages by the courts, and Vermont passed a bill over the governor’s veto.
Massachusetts’ high court has ordered the state to recognize gay marriages. In Rhode Island, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage has been introduced but is not expected to pass this year.
New Hampshire’s House was also expected to vote on a bill Wednesday and send it to Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat. He could sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
New England states have acted quickly since gay marriages became law in Massachusetts in 2004 because it’s a small region with porous borders, shared media markets and a largely shared culture, said Carisa Cunningham of the gay defenders group.
“People can see the sky hasn’t fallen on Massachusetts. There hasn’t been a destruction of Western civiliation, and life has gone on,” Cunningham said.
Outside New England, Iowa is recognizing gay marriages on court orders. The practice was briefly legal in California before voters banned it.
Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.
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