Maine became the fifth state to recognize same-sex marriage on Wednesday as Gov. John Baldacci signed a newly passed bill making such unions legal.
Mr. Baldacci, a Democrat, had previously opposed same-sex marriage, but said in April that he would be "keeping an open mind" as legislation moved through the state House and Senate. He acknowledged his change of heart at Wednesday's bill-signing ceremony.
"In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions," Mr. Baldacci said in a statement. "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."
Opponents of same-sex marriage had flooded the governor's office with letters and e-mails asking him to stick to his position on the issue. The law is scheduled to take effect in September, but plans are already in the works to reverse it by putting the issue before Maine voters in a referendum.
Michael Heath, executive director of the Maine Family Policy Council, which opposed the same-sex marriage bill, reaffirmed Wednesday that his organization would work to place a referendum on the November ballot.
"We are not surprised he signed," Mr. Heath said in an e-mail. "To say we are disappointed would be too kind."
Unlike in gay-marriage states such as Massachusetts and Iowa, the referendum process in Maine is fairly friendly to citizen initiatives. Those working to put a so-called "people's veto" on the November ballot would need to gather 55,087 signatures by mid-September. Such efforts are often successful: Last year, voters overturned a tax on soft drinks, beer and wine.
A poll published in April found 47.3 percent of Maine residents favored same-sex marriage, while 49.5 percent were opposed, with the rest undecided.
The governor signed the same-sex marriage bill just one day after the House approved it on a 89-57 vote. The vote in the state Senate passed by 21-13.
Maine is the third state this year to agree to permit same-sex marriages. In April, the Iowa Supreme Court declared that the state's marriage statute violated the Iowa Constitution's equal-protection clause. Days later, the Vermont legislature overrode Gov. Jim Douglas' veto, enacting a same-sex marriage bill.
Maine also becomes the fourth New England state to allow same-sex marriage. Besides Vermont, both Connecticut and Massachusetts already recognize gay marriage. A similar bill has passed both houses of the New Hampshire legislature and sits on the desk of Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who has said he opposes gay marriage.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund lauded Mr. Baldacci for signing the bill.
"We are thrilled with Governor John Baldacci's thoughtful and well-reasoned decision to sign this critical legislation," said Rea Carey, the task force's executive director. "This is a great day for Maine and a great day for this country. With recent marriage victories in Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont, this action affirms the national momentum building for marriage equality."
She noted that the task force had given $82,000 to EqualityMaine for a voter-identification project while organizing a leadership and training summit. Other gay rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, had also been active in promoting same-sex marriage in the state.
"Just one year ago, a single state allowed same-sex couples to marry. Now, with the historic step taken by Governor Baldacci and the Maine Legislature, five states will provide equal dignity, equal respect, and equal rights under state law for same-sex couples by recognizing their freedom to marry, and we hope more will follow soon," Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said.
Whether the law can survive the referendum process remains to be seen. No state has approved same-sex marriage via the ballot box, while 30 states have approved defense of marriage amendments through both popular and legislative votes.
In November, California voters passed Proposition 8, which overturned a state Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage.
"We are expecting a ballot challenge of some kind, and we're fully ready to fight," said Janson Wu, staff lawyer for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.