AUGUSTA – Jennifer Curran could only sit in the pews of her Roman Catholic church over the years and watch as bride after bride – friends, her two sisters – walked down the aisle.

Now that her home state of Maine has approved same-sex marriage, she’s looking forward to inviting them to sit on the sidelines in a Congregational church and watch her marry Carolyn Thompson, her partner of nine years.

“It’s been such a long time in coming,” said Curran, 41, of Falmouth. “I want to stand up in my church, surrounded by friends and family, and say, ‘I do.”‘

Maine on Wednesday became the fifth state to approve gay marriage in a cliffhanger that was resolved when Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who hadn’t indicated his plans, signed the freshly passed legislation behind closed doors.

New Hampshire’s Legislature voted soon afterward to allow gay marriage, but Gov. John Lynch hasn’t indicated whether he would sign it. If he does or lets it become law without his signature, Rhode Island would become the only state in the region that does not sanction gay marriage.

Both bills specify that religious institutions are not compelled to recognize same-sex marriages.

The vote by the Maine Senate was 21-13, with one lawmaker absent. The bill 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.

“In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions,” Baldacci said in a statement read in his office. “I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law, and that a civil union is not equal to civil marriage.”

The law is to take effect in mid-September but could be sidetracked before then. Opponents promise to challenge it through a public veto process that could suspend it while a statewide vote takes shape.

Sue Estler, of Orono, said she and her partner of 20 years, Paula Johnson, plan to get married. But she also thinks opponents might collect enough signatures to force the referendum.

A professor at the University of Maine, the 64-year-old Estler said she sent an e-mail to out-of-state friends and family members Wednesday saying “Oh, my god. The governor just signed the bill.”

“But I said, ‘Don’t make your travel plans for the wedding yet. There’s still probably a referendum to go,”‘ she said.

Legislative debate was brief.

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.

The activist group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders has targeted all six New England states for passage of a gay marriage law by 2012, noting its porous borders, shared media markets and a largely shared culture.

Maine is now the fourth state in the region 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.

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.

If it comes to a statewide vote in Maine, Estler is confident gay marriage will prevail.

“I think Maine people will support it,” she said. “Part of the reason I say that is Maine is a state where people, regardless of party affiliation, really believe in live and let live.”

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