Gay marriage is now legal in Maine after Governor John Baldacci signed it into law.

The Governor had previously opposed gay marriage but said in a statement he believed a civil union was not equal to marriage.

In the statement, he said: “I have followed closely the debate on this issue. I have listened to both sides, as they have presented their arguments during the public hearing and on the floor of the Maine Senate and the House of Representatives. I have read many of the notes and letters sent to my office, and I have weighed my decision carefully. I did not come to this decision lightly or in haste.

“I appreciate the tone brought to this debate by both sides of the issue. This is an emotional issue that touches deeply many of our most important ideals and traditions. There are good, earnest and honest people on both sides of the question.”

“In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions. 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.”

Baldacci also noted there was likely to be a referendum on the issue, saying: “Even as I sign this important legislation into law, I recognise that this may not be the final word.

“Just as the Maine Constitution demands that all people are treated equally under the law, it also guarantees that the ultimate political power in the State belongs to the people.

“While the good and just people of Maine may determine this issue, my responsibility is to uphold the Constitution and do, as best as possible, what is right. I believe that signing this legislation is the right thing to do.”

The bill will not force churches to perform gay marriage ceremonies, instead guaranteeing state citizens the right to equality under civil marriage laws.

He said: “This new law does not force any religion to recognise a marriage that falls outside of its beliefs. It does not require the church to perform any ceremony with which it disagrees. Instead, it reaffirms the separation of Church and State.

“It guarantees that Maine citizens will be treated equally under Maine’s civil marriage laws, and that is the responsibility of government.”

The bill had previously been approved by the state’s Senate by 21 votes to 13. It passed in the House of Representatives 89 votes to 57.

The decision makes Maine the fifth US state to legalise gay marriage, after Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa.