ANNAPOLIS, Maryland (Reuters) - Maryland became the eighth state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage on Thursday, just as opponents were ramping up efforts to repeal the new law at the ballot box.
At a ceremony in the state capitol building, Governor Martin O'Malley signed into law the measure he has vigorously advocated, surrounded by a cheering crowd of legislators and gay-marriage supporters.
"If there's a thread that unites us all, it's the thread of human dignity," the Democratic governor said. "We are all one Maryland, and all of us at the end of the day want the same thing for our children."
Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and the District of Columbia currently allow gay and lesbian nuptials.
The mood at the bill-signing was jubilant. Many supporters wore pins that read "Dignity" and lined up to pose for photographs with the governor after he signed the bill into law.
Robyn Zeiger, 60, and Stacey Williams, 47, of Silver Spring, Maryland, said they were married in 2010 in the District of Columbia but now plan to be wed in their home state.
Being able to wed legally in Maryland "means everything to me," said Williams.
"It's how I feel. It's being proud of who I am, not being afraid to say to someone: 'This is my wife. This is my partner in life,'" she said.
Washington state will join the list of states with same-sex marriage in June unless opponents stop it ahead of a possible ballot initiative, and Maryland will be added in January 2013 unless its law, too, is overturned by a threatened referendum in November.
Same-sex marriage supporters in Maine, meanwhile, have gathered more than enough signatures to put the question to voters there this fall, all but guaranteeing it will remain a hotly debated issue in several corners of the country during a presidential election year.
In Maryland, opponents need nearly 56,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot, according to the state Board of Elections. They would need to submit a third of the signatures by May 31 and the remainder by June 30 to get the measure on the November ballot.
A coalition called the Maryland Marriage Alliance has applied to the state to lead the referendum push, and its director has said he expects the group's petitions will be pre-cleared by state officials for circulation by the end of this week.
Derek McCoy, director of the group, has said his coalition is training outreach teams and could be in churches training pastors on the issue as early as Sunday.
The Maryland Marriage Alliance represents nearly 3,000 churches and organizations statewide that would like to see voters decide the issue at the ballot box, according to McCoy.
"All of those people, collectively, want to see the current definition of marriage upheld," McCoy said.
Neil Parrott, a Republican in the House of Delegates who opposed the bill, said: "The petitions are going to be in mosques, they're going to be in synagogues, in churches."
Countering the repeal effort is Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a coalition including the Human Rights Campaign, the Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP, the Service Employees International Union, Equality Maryland and others that is working to build support for same-sex marriage.
The governor, in unusual personal testimony, urged support of the measure before a legislative committee in January.
The Senate voted in favor of the bill 25 to 22 last week after it was passed by the lower House of Delegates 72 to 67.
Under the new law, religious groups are not required to provide services linked to gay marriage that may violate their beliefs unless they receive federal funding.
Such protections would allow the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic group, to refuse to rent a meeting hall for a same-sex wedding and not require a church counseling service to counsel same-sex couples.
While controversial, same-sex marriage has been gaining acceptance recently. New Jersey passed a gay marriage law through both legislative houses, but it was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. An appeals court overturned California's ban on gay marriage, enacted through a 2008 ballot initiative.
Supporters call it a civil rights issue while opponents say marriage should be reserved for unions of a man and a woman.
Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst and Paul Thomasch