AUGUSTA, Maine – New England states signaled an increasing willingness to sanction gay marriage on Wednesday as Maine legalized the practice and the New Hampshire Legislature voted to do the same.
If New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch signs the bill or lets it become law without his signature, his state would become the sixth overall to allow gay marriage and the fifth in New England. Rhode Island would be the only state in the region without such a law.
Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat who hadn’t indicated how he would handle his state’s bill, signed it shortly after the legislation passed the Senate on a vote of 21-13 – a margin not large enough to override a veto.
“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.”
Lynch, also a Democrat, remained uncommitted but has said he believes the word “marriage” should be reserved for unions of a man and a woman.
“I’m going to talk to legislators and I’m going to talk to the people of New Hampshire and ultimately make the best decision I can for the people of New Hampshire,” the governor said.
The New Hampshire bill squeaked through on a 178-167 vote after an hour of debate. Both chambers appear to be far short of enough votes to override a veto.
Maine’s 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 statewide vote takes shape.
Both states’ bills specify that religious institutions don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages.
The activist group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders has targeted all six New England states for passage of a gay marriage law by 2012.
Connecticut has enacted a bill after being ordered to allow gay marriages by the courts, and Vermont has 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 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.
Outside New England, Iowa is recognizing gay marriages on court orders.