Maryland became the eighth state to legalize gay marriage on Thursday, as opponents were already several days into an effort to rally voters to reverse the change this fall.
Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the bill into law on Thursday, and it takes effect in January 2013.
“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 adding his signature to the legislation.
The Maryland House of Delegates passed the same-sex marriage bill on Feb. 17 and the Senate did the same on Feb. 23.
All six Republicans and one Democrat in the Washington County delegation voted against the bill. Only state Sen.Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick/Washington, voted in favor.
A group founded by Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, is pushing for a referendum on the bill. The Maryland Marriage Alliance is working with the group.
Parrott’s group, MdPetitions.com, helped lead a successful petition drive last year for a referendum on a new Maryland law granting in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants.
Parrott and Derek McCoy, director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, each filed draft language with the state board of elections last Friday as groundwork for a petition drive.
Over the weekend, some pastors at predominantly black churches already were using their sermons to shop the referendum effort to their congregations, asking members to sign up for email alerts, put their name on petitions and overturn the law come November. The Catholic Church, which has 1.2 million parishioners in Maryland, also has openly opposed the bill.
A Sunday service at the Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., was filled with murmurs of agreement as a spokeswoman for the Maryland Marriage Alliance rallied the mostly black congregation against the law.
“We will have the last say on how marriage will be defined in Maryland,” spokeswoman Dee Powell shouted repeatedly to the audience of several hundred.
When a same-sex marriage bill fell short in the legislature last year, black pastors were given much of the credit for pressuring lawmakers to oppose it. The measure was pulled from the floor of the House as leaders realized it fell short of the needed votes.
Opponents will need to collect nearly 56,000 valid voter signatures, equivalent to 3 percent of the people who cast ballots in the 2010 gubernatorial election, to put the measure on the November ballot. Even same-sex marriage advocates expect the referendum to end up on the ballot.
Six states and the District of Columbia currently recognize gay marriages. The state of Washington also has legalized gay marriage, and its law takes effect in June. Voters there are expected to petition the measure to referendum this fall.
Maine legalized unions for same-sex couples in 2009, but later that year became the only state to overturn such a law passed by a legislature.
Meanwhile, about 30 states have constitutional amendments that seek to prohibit same-sex marriage, most by defining marriage as between a man and a woman.