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The Senate’s passage now gives opponents the official go-ahead to begin a petition effort to force a referendum.

Petitioners will have until June 30 to collect 55,736 valid signatures from registered voters. If successful, the law will be suspended and put on November’s ballot.

Many gay-marriage supporters have bristled at the thought of a referendum, arguing that the bill is a civil-rights measure and should thus not be left in the hands of a potentially unwilling public.

Mr. O'Malley said he understands such concerns but has faith that voters will make the right decision. Recent polls show Marylanders to be divided almost evenly on the issue.

“I have a great amount of trust, faith and intelligence of the people of Maryland,” the governor said. “So I don’t fear their judgment.”