AUGUSTA, Maine -- Maine's governor signed a freshly passed bill Wednesday approving gay marriage, making it the fifth state to approve the practice and moving New England closer to allowing it throughout the region.
New Hampshire legislators were also poised to send a gay marriage bill to their governor, who hasn't indicated whether he'll sign it. If he does, Rhode Island would be the region's sole holdout.
The Maine Senate voted 21-13, with one absent, for a bill that authorizes marriage between any two people rather than between one man and one woman, as state law currently allows. The House had passed the bill Tuesday.
Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who hadn't previously indicated how he would handle the bill, signed it shortly afterward. In the past, he said he opposed gay marriage but supported civil unions, which provide many benefits of marriage.
Debate was brief. Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, turned the gavel over to an openly gay member, Sen. Lawrence Bliss, D-South Portland, to preside over the final vote.
Republican Sen. Debra Plowman of Hampden argued that the bill was being passed "at the expense of the people of faith."
"You are making a decision that is not well-founded," warned Plowman.
But Senate Majority Leader Philip Bartlett II said the bill does not compel religious institutions to recognize gay marriage.
"We respect religious liberties. ... This is long overdue," said Bartlett, D-Gorham.
Maine is now the fourth state in New England, to allow same-sex marriages. Connecticut enacted a bill after being ordered to allow gay marriages by the courts, and Vermont passed a bill over the governor's veto.
New Hampshire's House was also expected to vote on a bill Wednesday and send it to Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat.
Massachusetts' high court has ordered the state to recognize gay marriages. In Rhode Island, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage has been introduced but is not expected to pass this year.
Outside New England, Iowa is recognizing gay marriages on court orders. The practice was briefly legal in California before voters banned it.