By Alice Popovici
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland (Reuters) - Maryland became the eighth state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage on Thursday, just as opponents were ramping up efforts to repeal the new law at the ballot box.
At a ceremony in the state capitol building attended by a cheering crowd of gay-marriage supporters, Governor Martin O'Malley signed into law the measure he has hailed as a sign of "equal respect for the freedom of all."
Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and the District of Columbia currently allow gay and lesbian nuptials.
Washington will join the list in June unless opponents stop it ahead of a possible ballot initiative, and Maryland will be added in January 2013 unless its law, too, is overturned by a threatened referendum in November.
Same-sex marriage supporters in Maine, meanwhile, have gathered more than enough signatures to put the question to voters there this fall, all but guaranteeing it will remain a hotly debated issue in several corners of the country during a presidential election year.
In Maryland, opponents need nearly 56,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot, according to the state Board of Elections. They would need to submit a third of the signatures by May 31 and the remainder by June 30 to get the measure on the November ballot.
A coalition called the Maryland Marriage Alliance has applied to the state to lead the referendum push, and its director has said he expects the group's petitions will be pre-cleared by state officials for circulation by the end of this week.
Derek McCoy, director of the group, said on Wednesday his coalition was already training outreach teams and could be in churches training pastors on the issue as early as Sunday.
The Maryland Marriage Alliance represents nearly 3,000 churches and organizations statewide that would like to see voters decide the issue at the ballot box, according to McCoy.
"All of those people, collectively, want to see the current definition of marriage upheld," McCoy said.
Neil Parrott, a Republican in the House of Delegates who opposed the bill, said: "The petitions are going to be in mosques, they're going to be in synagogues, in churches."
Countering the repeal effort is Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a coalition including the Human Rights Campaign, the Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP, the Service Employees International Union, Equality Maryland and others that is working to build support for same-sex marriage.
The governor, in unusual personal testimony, urged support of the measure before a legislative committee in January.
The Senate voted in favor of the bill 25 to 22 last week after it was passed by the lower House of Delegates 72 to 67.
Under the new law, religious groups are not required to provide services linked to gay marriage that may violate their beliefs unless they receive federal funding.
Such protections would allow the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic group, to refuse to rent a meeting hall for a same-sex wedding and not require a church counseling service to counsel same-sex couples.
While controversial, same-sex marriage has been gaining acceptance recently. New Jersey passed a gay marriage law through both legislative houses, but it was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. An appeals court overturned California's ban on gay marriage, enacted through a 2008 ballot initiative.
Supporters call it a civil rights issue while opponents say marriage should be reserved for unions of a man and a woman.
(Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Johnston)