With the governor’s signature Wednesday, Maine became the fifth state in the country to allow gay marriage. Appropriately, the final debate was about equality and civil rights. That is where the focus should remain as groups opposed to same-sex marriage have pledged a people’s veto of the new law.

Because he had opposed gay marriage in the past, there was much speculation about whether Gov. John Baldacci would sign the bill, LD 1020, if it reached his desk. The governor relied heavily on the Constitution in reaching a decision to sign the bill, which was passed Tuesday by the House and earlier Wednesday by the Senate.

“In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions,” Gov. Baldacci said. A bill to, in effect, allow civil unions in Maine was rejected by lawmakers. “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.” His decision illustrates a rare thing in politics — an openness to new information and the power of a changed mind.

Quoting from Article I of the Maine Constitution, the governor said “‘no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor be denied the equal protection of the laws, nor be denied the enjoyment of that person’s civil rights or be discriminated against.’”

LD 1020, he concluded, “guarantees that Maine citizens will be treated equally under Maine’s civil marriage laws, and that is the responsibility of government.”

Maine is one of a few forward-looking states that have extended marriage to same-sex couples through legislation rather than court order. Vermont lawmakers last month approved same-sex marriage and the New Hampshire Legislature is expected to soon pass a similar law.

The Maine legislation also took important steps, mirroring the state’s Human Rights Law, to respect religious freedom and traditions. No church will be compelled to perform or recognize marriages that run counter to its faith. This strikes the difficult balance of respecting religious freedom while ensuring equality.

Despite strongly held views on both sides of the issue, the debate in Maine, including at a 10-hour public hearing, was generally respectful and polite. This civility should remain a hallmark of the discussion if there is a campaign to undo the law.

Many lawmakers believe the issue should be decided by the voters, although amendments to LD 1020 that sought to put the question out to referendum failed. This is a popular argument, but it overlooks the basis of a representative democracy. The fight for minority rights always faces opposition, which is why we rely on elected officials. Giving a different — and small — group something the majority already has should not always face a veto from the “haves.”

Sen. Dennis Damon, the prime sponsor of LD 1020, Gov. Baldacci and the majority of lawmakers are to be commended for fulfilling their responsibility to uphold the Constitution and to respect the separation of church and state. Any future votes on the issue, if there are any, must meet the same standard.