CONCORD, N.H. - New Hampshire became the sixth state to legalize gay marriage Wednesday in a move that reflects the state's changing demographics from reliably Republican and conservative to younger and more liberal.
The Senate and House passed key language on religious rights, Gov. John Lynch - who personally opposes gay marriage - signed the legislation Wednesday afternoon.
Lynch, a Democrat, had promised a veto if the law didn't clearly spell out that churches and religious groups would not be forced to officiate at gay marriages or provide other services. Legislators made the changes.
"Today, we are standing up for the liberties of same-sex couples by making clear that they will receive the same rights, responsibilities - and respect - under New Hampshire law," Lynch said.
Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and Iowa already allow gay marriage, though opponents hope to overturn Maine's law with a public vote.
California briefly allowed gay marriage before a public vote banned it; a court ruling grandfathered in couples who were already married.
Lynch said it is now time for the federal government to extend full equal rights to same-sex couples.
After rallies outside the Statehouse by both sides in the morning, the last of three bills in the package went to the Senate, which approved it 14-10 Wednesday afternoon.
Cheers from the gallery greeted the key vote in the House, which passed it 198-176. Surrounded by gay marriage supporters, Lynch signed the bill about an hour later.
The New Hampshire law will take effect Jan. 1, exactly two years after the state began recognizing civil unions.
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, elected in New Hampshire in 2003 as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, was among those celebrating the new law.
"It's about being recognized as whole people and whole citizens," Robinson said.
"There are a lot of people standing here who when we grew up could not have imagined this," he said. "You can't imagine something that is simply impossible. It's happened, in our lifetimes."
Opponents objected on grounds including the fragmented process.
"It is no surprise that the Legislature finally passed the last piece to the gay marriage bill today. After all, when you take 12 votes on five iterations of the same issue, you're bound to get it passed sooner or later," said Kevin Smith, executive director of gay marriage opponent Cornerstone Policy Research.
The revised bill clarified that church-related organizations that serve charitable or educational purposes are exempt from having to provide insurance and other benefits to same-sex spouses of employees.
The House rejected the language Lynch suggested two weeks ago by two votes. Wednesday's vote was on a revised bill negotiated with the Senate.
"The pro-gay marriage people have been very disingenuous," said Fenton Groen, 59, of Rochester, N.H. "They told us two years ago that if civil unions were passed, that would completely satisfy them. Within two years, they have completely changed their minds."
Supporters had considered Wednesday their last chance to pass a bill this year.
Rob Davis of Concord and his partner of 27 years, Dean Davis, were in the jubilant crowd outside afterward.
They had a civil union last year.
"It didn't go far enough," Rob Davis said of their civil union. "We're real happy."
New Hampshire's decision leaves Rhode Island as the only New England state not to allow same-sex marriages. A bill there is expected to fail this year, as similar ones have in previous years.