Martin O'Malley, governor of the state of Maryland, on Thursday signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriages in the state, thereby making Maryland the eighth U.S. state to adopt such legislation.
"Religious freedom was the very reason for our state's founding and at the heart of religious freedom is the freedom of individual conscience," O'Malley said just before signing the bill into law.
The measure was forwarded to him for signing into law after the State Senate approved the controversial bill by a vote of 25 to 22 last week. The State House cleared the measure with a slim majority a week earlier.
Adoption of the legislation was a mere formality after both Houses of the state legislature approved it, and O'Malley said that he would sign the measure as soon as it reached him. Incidentally, the Governor himself had sponsored the bill.
The law is due to take effect in January of 2013, although opponents of the legislation have already submitted draft language for a ballot referendum to overturn the measure.
If the law goes into effect, Maryland will join seven other U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex marriages.
The other U.S. states that have legalized the practice are Connecticut, New Hampshire, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and Washington. Weeks earlier, the governor of New Jersey vetoed a bill allowing same-sex marriages in that state.
Several human rights groups have welcomed the development, but opponents of the measure in Maryland have pledged to challenge it in a referendum in November. They have already initiated efforts to collect the minimum required 55,726 valid signatures of Maryland voters for calling the referendum.
Although the Maryland state legislature has one of the largest Democrat majorities, the controversial bill had evoked stiff resistance from African-American Catholic and evangelical lawmakers, as well as several religious groups. The measure failed to get the clearance of the state assembly last year.
The development in Maryland comes weeks after a U.S. federal appeals court ruled earlier this month that the ban imposed on same-sex marriages in California was unconstitutional, paving the way for a showdown on the issue in the Supreme Court.
On February 7, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned the referendum-approved Proposition 8 measure that banned gay marriages in California in a 2-1 decision.
The panel found the ban to be in direct violation of the equal protection rights of two same-sex couples that brought the suit. But lawyers for the ban's supporters have indicated that they plan to move the nation's highest court to resolve the issue.
The California ban on same sex marriages, known as Proposition 8, was approved by voters in a 2008 referendum by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent.
by RTT Staff Writer
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