IF MARRIAGE equality is a matter of civil rights, then America is finally starting to wake up.

If it's a wedge issue designed to win elections, then social conservatives might want to find a new one.

And if banning same-sex marriage is God's will, then God can't be thrilled with voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington.

Tuesday, they became the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, a stunning turnaround that gay-rights leaders say could spur pushes for similar rights in states that already have established civil unions, including Delaware, Illinois, Rhode Island and Hawaii.

"I'm ecstatic," said Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal, a gay-rights pioneer since the 1970s. "I think what this election proved beyond the shadow of a doubt is that this has become a nation of diversity. And diverse people believe in civil rights."

Also Tuesday, Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate, five openly gay Democrats were elected to U.S. House seats, and Minnesota voters rejected a proposal to place a gay-marriage ban in the state constitution.

"Democratic legislators and Democratic executives in government are seeing that they can move forward on [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] civil-rights issues and not have it cost them political capital," said Brian Sims, a Philadelphia lawyer who in January will become the first openly gay member of Pennsylvania's General Assembly.

Sims attributed the developments to gay exposure in popular culture, but said that President Obama's belated decision to support same-sex marriage likely encouraged voters to do the same.

Patrick J. Egan, an assistant professor of politics and public policy at New York University, said that gay-marriage supporters were fighting on friendly territory this year in Maryland, Maine, Washington and Minnesota. But the results belie a key talking point of those opposed to marriage equality, he said.

"It really takes a weapon out of the opponents' quiver," said Egan, who served as an assistant deputy mayor under Ed Rendell. "For a long time, a big part of the opponents' argument has been that, essentially, gay marriage has been forced on voters from above, either by a court or a state legislature. Now, they really can't say that. You have three electorates that have approved gay marriage at the ballot box."

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which poured $5.5 million into the four states to oppose gay marriage, said that the results do not represent a "changing point in how Americans view gay marriage," but simply the political reality in four liberal states.

"Though we are disappointed over these losses, we remain faithful to our mission and committed to the cause of preserving marriage as God designed it," Brown said in a statement. "Marriage is a true and just cause, and we will never abandon the field of battle just because we experienced a setback."

- The Associated Press

contributed to this report.

Contact William Bender at benderw@phillynews.com or 215-854-5255. Follow him on Twitter @wbender99.