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Maryland governor Martin O'Malley signed the marriage equality bill Thursday as opponents of the law prepared their push for a referendum this fall.
O'Malley, who made the bill a priority this session, held a signing ceremony in Annapolis one week after the Senate passed the bill in a 25-22 vote. Lawmakers and advocates attended the event, which marked the culmination of a two-year campaign that included the decision to pull the bill from a vote in the House of Delegates last year due to lack of support.
The bill signing makes Maryland the eighth state plus the District of Columbia to legalize same-sex marriage. The law is not scheduled to take effect until January, after opponents are expected to challenge the measure on the November ballot.
According to the Associated Press, the State Board of Elections Wednesday approved the language opponents will use to collect the nearly 56,000 valid signatures required for the referendum. The Maryland Marriage Alliance, a group of religious organizations supported by the National Organization for Marriage, said it expected to begin collecting signatures from church goers as soon as this Sunday. Del. Neil Parrott, who is working with the alliance on the referendum, last year developed a website, MDPetitions.com, that will disseminate petitions electronically.
Proponents of the referendum are expected to rely on the Catholic Church, a powerful institution in Maryland, and African-American church leaders to supply votes for the referendum, the AP reports. Nearly one third of the state's population is African-American, and the reelection campaign of President Barack Obama will likely bring large numbers of black voters to the polls.
The Human Rights Campaign, a founding member of the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition that worked to pass the bill, acknowledged the remaining challenges in a statement that celebrated the signing of the bill. A poll by The Washington Post in January showed that Marylanders supported same-sex marriage by 50% to 44%.
"There remains a lot of work to do between now and an expected November referendum to make marriage equality a reality in Maryland," said HRC president Joe Solmonese. "Along with coalition partners, we look forward to educating and engaging voters about what this bill does: It strengthens all Maryland families and protects religious liberty."