New Hampshire became the sixth state to recognize same-sex marriage Wednesday after the state legislature agreed to include changes protecting religious institutions from being forced to marry gay couples.
Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, signed the bill just hours after the state House voted 198-176 and the Senate voted 14-10 to legalize gay marriage.
"Today, we are standing up for the liberties of same-sex couples by making clear that they will receive the same rights, responsibilities and respect under New Hampshire law," Mr. Lynch said.
Mr. Lynch, who has stated he believes personally that marriage should be between a man and a woman, had said that he would veto the bill unless protections for religious groups were added.
New Hampshire joined Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and Maine in legalizing same-sex marriage, and is the fourth to do so this year. The Vermont and Maine legislatures approved bills recognizing same-sex marriage earlier this year, while the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in March that not performing such unions is unconstitutional.
The only surprise surrounding the New Hampshire action was its timing.
Both state houses approved a same-sex marriage bill earlier this year, but the governor sent it back in May, asking the legislature to include language making it clear that religious organizations and their employees have the right to refuse to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Lawmakers expected the governor's amendment to sail through the legislature easily, and thus were stunned when the House rejected it in a May 20 vote by a margin of 188-186.
New Hampshire political analyst Dean Spiliotes chalked up the vote to a large number of absences the legislature meets year-round and pays only a pittance, thus many lawmakers miss votes due to their jobs and to qualms over the speed at which the bill was moving.
Legislative leaders met Friday in conference committee to tweak the governor's language. Meanwhile, Democrats rallied support for the bill while stressing the importance of high attendance.
"What played out last week is that they decided to do a do-over," Mr. Spiliotes said. "There was no huge sea-change; they just needed to get their ducks in a row."
Gay-rights advocates hailed the New Hampshire action as another important step in securing equal rights for same-sex couples.
"I think that ever since the legislature began grappling with this issue earlier this year, we've been hopeful that they would move past civil unions and go for the real thing," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry.
Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research Action in Manchester, N.H., which opposes gay marriage, said the governor and some legislators would likely pay a political price for the move in the 2010 election.
"The governor said as recently as April that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman," Mr. Smith said. "This is a stark departure from everything he's said in the past. I wouldn't call it squishy I'd call it completely misleading the voters."
He said conservatives would attempt to repeal the same-sex marriage law, while acknowledging that it wouldn't be easy. Even getting a referendum onto the ballot requires a two-thirds vote in both the Democrat-controlled House and Senate.