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BOSTON (Reuters) - Maine's governor signed a bill on Wednesday legalizing same-sex marriage, clearing the way for the Northeastern U.S. state to become the fifth in the country to do so, five years after Massachusetts became the first to allow gay people to marry.
But the law could be delayed or even voided by a possible statewide referendum if opponents to the bill gather enough support in coming weeks.
"I have read many of the notes and letters sent to my office, and I have weighed my decision carefully," Democratic Governor John Baldacci said in a statement. "I did not come to this decision lightly or in haste."
Gay marriage, a major front in America's culture wars, has made significant inroads in the United States this year. In a single week last month, Iowa and Vermont joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in allowing gay couples to wed legally.
Similar legislation is advancing in New Hampshire, where lawmakers sent a gay-marriage bill to the governor on Wednesday. If he supports it, Rhode Island would be the only hold-out in the six-state New England region.
In California, gay marriage advocates are hoping to overturn Proposition 8, the 2008 constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage there, in the state's highest court.
Maine's Democratic-controlled Senate voted 21-13 last week in support of a bill that redefines marriage as the legal union of two people rather than between a man and a woman. Maine's House of Representatives passed it on Tuesday.
The law in the state of 1.3 million people takes effect 90 days from when the legislative session ends, likely in June.
But if the bill's opponents gather 55,000 signatures for a "people's veto," they can delay the law pending a statewide referendum, which would likely be held during elections in November, said the governor's spokesman, David Farmer.
"Even as I sign this important legislation into law, I recognize that this may not be the final word," Baldacci said.
"Just as the Maine Constitution demands that all people are treated equally under the law, it also guarantees that the ultimate political power in the state belongs to the people."
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a group of lawyers who led the legal fight for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and Connecticut, has set a target of bringing same-sex marriage to all six New England states by 2012.
Opponents to gay marriage, often religious conservatives, see it as a threat to the "traditional family" that they say is ordained by God and is the foundation of civilization. They also see same-sex acts as a biblical sin.
"Because of the profound importance of man-woman marriage to the nation, we too urge the citizens of Maine to exercise their right to a 'people's veto' and halt this move toward counterfeit marriage," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group.
Supporters see it as a human rights issue, one that follows the path blazed by the civil rights movement.