- (Photo: AP / Pat Wellenbach)
Maine has become the fifth state to allow gay marriage after Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill legalizing the practice. His signature went on to the bill within an hour after the Senate passed it Wednesday.
"In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions," said Baldacci. "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."
A similar gay marriage bill could reach the New Hampshire governor on Wednesday as the state House is set to vote on the legislation in the afternoon.
Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont currently allow same-sex marriage. On Tuesday, the Washington, D.C. Council gave its final approval on legislation to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
In Maine, the Senate voted 21-13 to approve the bill one day after it passed the House.
The legislation repealed a provision under the state's 1997 Defense of Marriage Act that limited marriage between one man and one woman and replaced it with one that allows marriage between any two persons that meet the requirement of Maine law. The bill also affirmed the right of religious institutions and ministers to refuse solemnizing gay marriage without facing any penalties or fines.
During a brief legislative debate over the measure, legislators disagreed on whether the bill would hamper religious freedoms.
Republican Sen. Debra Plowman opposed the bill, saying it was being passed "at the expense of the people of faith," according to The Associated Press.
Baldacci reaffirmed the rights of religious institutions in the matter on Wednesday, saying the new law does not force any religion to recognize a marriage that falls outside of its beliefs.
"It does not require the church to perform any ceremony with which it disagrees. Instead, it reaffirms the separation of Church and State," he said in a statement.
Opponents, led by Maine Family Policy Council, are in the process of organizing a campaign under Maine’s people’s veto law to force a repeal referendum. The group needs to collect around 60,000 signatures to put the issue to a statewide vote later this year.