updated 5/7/2009 7:21:23 PM ET 2009-05-07T23:21:23

Opponents of Maine's new law allowing gay marriage have filed a formal challenge to it, setting into motion plans for a possible public vote that could be months or more than a year away.

That means couples anxious to wed may have a long wait.

"We're very disappointed," said Steve Ryan, who was looking forward to the new law with his partner, Jim Bishop. "We plan to get married as soon as we can. This is going to put our whole life on hold."

Activists on both sides Thursday started working up strategies for campaigns leading up to a possible November referendum under a state constitutional provision known as the people's veto. Lawmakers approved gay marriage Wednesday.

"The wheels are turning," Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, Maine's chief election official, said after opponents filed an application that sets the stage for the challenge process ahead.

Deadline for signatures
The deadline for opponents to collect at least 55,087 signatures will probably fall in mid-September, about the time the gay marriage law is due to take effect.

However, the law would be stayed as soon as the signatures are submitted for review by election officials. And the timing of when petitions are turned in will determine whether the referendum can be scheduled for this November or June 2010.

Marc Mutty of the Roman Catholic Diocese said challengers expect to get the go-ahead by May 21 to begin collecting signatures to get a referendum on the bill, which was signed Wednesday by Gov. John Baldacci.

Baldacci's action preceded by only hours a vote by New Hampshire lawmakers that sanctioned gay marriage in that neighboring state, but Gov. John Lynch has not decided whether he'll sign it.

The National Association of Marriage Enhancement — which helped drive successful referendums in Arizona, California and Florida to pass laws defining marriage as between one man and one woman — said it is looking for ways to help out.

'We will protect that law'
But supporters of Maine's new law aren't sitting quietly and said plan their own campaign focusing on personal contact with friends, neighbors and relatives.

"Now that it is the law of the state of Maine, we will protect that law," said Betsy Smith of EqualityMaine. Smith said fundraising will be a challenge given the economic climate, adding, "It's disappointing we would need to raise a lot of money to protect a law in Maine."

Once the state approves the wording on petitions seeking repeal of the law, the petitions will be circulated so voter signatures can be collected. The state constitution requires at least 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election.

Gay marriage is legal in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Iowa.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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