NEW YORK - Maryland voters on Tuesday approved same-sex marriage, while similar measures in Maine and Washington state also appeared on track to pass, marking the first time marriage rights have been extended to same-sex couples by popular vote.
The approval was a watershed moment for gay rights activists because while same-sex unions have been legalized in six states and the District of Columbia by lawmakers or courts, voters until Tuesday had consistently rejected the issue. Voters in more than 30 states have approved constitutional bans on gay marriage.
People line up for early voting in Silver Spring, Maryland October 27, 2012. REUTERS
"It's enormous. We have truly made history," said Brian Ellner, the head of the pro-gay marriage group The Four. "Having the first states approve marriage by a popular vote changes the narrative and sends an important message to the Supreme Court."
In Maryland, the gay-marriage measure passed 52 percent to 48 percent, with 93 percent of precincts reporting. In Maine, it was leading by 54 percent to 46 percent, with more than 62 percent of precincts reporting. And in Washington, it was leading by 52 percent to 48 percent, with 61 percent of precincts reporting.
In Minnesota, meanwhile, voters appeared to be leaning against adding that state to the list of those defining marriage solely as a heterosexual union. With more than 78 percent of precincts reporting, the proposed constitutional amendment was trailing 49 percent to 51 percent.
The constitutionality of restricting marriage to unions between a man and a woman is widely expected to be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court soon.
James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, called the votes a "watershed moment" for gay and lesbian families.
"Not long ago, marriage for same-sex couples was unimaginable," he said. "In a remarkably short time, we have seen courts start to rule in favor of the freedom to marry, then legislatures affirm it, and now the people vote for it as well. Today's election illustrates both the astonishing pace of change on this issue as well as America's commitment to fairness for everyone."
Six states, as well as the District of Columbia, previously expanded marriage rights to include same-sex couples. In Massachusetts, Iowa and Connecticut, the laws followed court rulings that found same-sex couples could not be denied the right to marry. Legislatures brought on the change in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire.
Before this year, ballot initiatives banning the legal recognition of same-sex marriage had succeeded in 31 states, and no state had ever approved same-sex marriage by popular vote.
Maine voters rejected gay marriage in a referendum in 2009 by 53 to 47 percent. In Washington and Maryland, where the state legislatures previously passed laws expanding marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, it was up to citizens to decide whether to let the laws stand.
"Over these past few weeks, Marylanders joined together to affirm that for a free and diverse people of many faiths - a people committed to religious freedom - the way forward is always found through greater respect for the equal rights and human dignity of all," Governor Martin O'Malley said in a statement.
Bolstered by public opinion polls showing growing acceptance of same-sex unions, particularly among young people, advocates this year sought to win over skeptics with personalized appeals for allowing same-sex couples to wed, for example asking voters if they knew anyone who was gay.
In May, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to endorse same-sex marriage, and last month he supported gay marriage, endorsed all three initiates.