Voters in Maryland approved the state’s same-sex marriage law on Tuesday, according to exit polls and early returns.  (Jae C. Hong/AP)

It’s pretty rare to cast a ballot that qualifies as genuinely historic. So I and more than 1 million other Marylanders can take special satisfaction in being among the first in the nation to approve equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples by popular referendum.

We mustn’t underestimate the importance of this result. It’s become common to think the issue of gay marriage is behind us, because the long-term trend in favor of same-sex nuptials is so clear.

The younger generation doesn’t understand why we’re still arguing about it. Gay marriage is already legal in six states and the District.

But success in those states came only because of actions by legislatures or judges. The victory in Maryland — together with a similar one on the same day in Maine — shows for the first time in America that the public as a whole can side with the principle of equality. For once, voters didn’t channel the reflexive, anti-gay prejudice that still lingers in our society.

(Same-sex marriage was also on the ballot in Washington state, where the result wasn’t available at deadline for this edition.)

Marriage triumphed in Maryland partly because activists from the start openly stressed the powerful appeal of equal, civil rights, especially to African American voters. They did so more than earlier campaigns have done in other states.

That approach won over Beverly Clough, 62, of Prince George’s County. She voted for same-sex marriage even though it makes her uncomfortable.

“I am religious, and I don’t really believe in it,” Clough said. But, she added, “I can’t tell [gay people] what to do with their lives. They are equal like anybody else.”

The electoral breakthrough marked a decisive shift in the debate after advocates lost 32 straight contests when the issue was submitted to a popular vote.

No longer can opponents argue, “The people oppose it.” No longer can they say same-sex marriage is a travesty imposed by supposedly elitist judges or out-of-touch lawmakers.

“It’s in­cred­ibly significant, because it takes away the talking point that the public is against marriage equality,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said.

He and other supporters stressed that Maryland helped create a new model for a campaign that other states will use in future efforts. The coalition in the Free State included some Republicans, Roman Catholics, black church leaders and labor unions.

“It’s one of the most diverse coalitions that we’ve ever seen in this movement,” Griffin said.

Perhaps the most important strategic choice was the decision to directly ask black voters to support same-sex marriage out of respect for equal, civil rights.

Such an approach had been deemed too risky in the past, because some African Americans took offense at the idea that gays’ ability to marry was a civil right equivalent to those won in the struggle against segregation.

The black vote was critical in Maryland. African Americans make up a quarter of the electorate in the state. Polls show they tend to oppose same-sex marriage, mainly out of religious belief, whereas whites overall favor it.

Same-sex marriage supporters, including the NAACP, adopted the new strategy after seeing its positive effects late in the game in an unsuccessful effort in May to block a same-sex marriage ban in North Carolina.

“What we saw was the trend surged for us at the end. The surge happened because we started to talk about this as a fundamental issue of civil rights, which was to protect people against discrimination by judges, by hospitals and others who had tremendous power over their lives,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said.

In addition, advocates emphasized that the issue was only one of civil marriage — getting a marriage license at city hall. The ballot question was worded to emphasize that. Eleven out of its 15 lines dealt with protection of religious freedom.

Ciera Smith, 20, who’s studying public health at the University of Maryland in College Park, voted for it even though the pastor of her Baptist church was strongly opposed.

“I’ve been tossing with the issue. I’m a Christian, and people in my church are against it. But I have a lot of friends who are gay, and if they want to marry the person they love, they should have the right to do it,” Smith said.

Even as opponents hoped they’d come out on top, there were signs they sensed that the debate has turned against them.

“Today, it’s becoming more politically correct to be in favor of same-sex marriage than marriage that has been around since the beginning of civilization,” said Derek McCoy, president of the Maryland Family Alliance.

“Political correctness” is typically used as a slur. In this case, the victory reflects a welcome advance for the precious American ideal of equality under the law.

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