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Same-sex marriage will continue to be legal in Massachusetts, after proponents on Thursday won a months-long battle to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

“In Massachusetts today, the freedom to marry is secure,” Gov. Deval Patrick said after the legislature voted 151-45 against the amendment, which needed 50 favorable votes in order to come before voters in a referendum in November 2008.

The vote means that opponents would have to start from square one to sponsor a new amendment, which could not get on the ballot before 2012. Massachusetts is the only state where same-sex marriage is legal, although five states allow civil unions or the equivalent.

Thursday’s victory for same-sex marriage was not a foregone conclusion, especially after the amendment won first-round approval from the previous legislature in January, with 62 lawmakers supporting it.

As late as a couple of hours before the 1 p.m. vote on Thursday, advocates on both sides of the issue said they were not sure whether enough legislators would be convinced to switch their votes and stop the amendment in its tracks. The eleventh-hour decisions of several legislators to vote against the amendment followed intensive lobbying by the leaders of the House and Senate and the governor.

“I think I am going to be doing a certain number of fundraisers for districts, and I am happy to do that,” said Patrick, who said he tried to persuade lawmakers not only that same-sex marriage should be allowed but also that a 2008 referendum would be divisive and distract from other important state issues. “There was a lot of rich discussion. Most of what I’ve committed to do is show up and support and indeed celebrate the political courage that was shown here today.”

About 8,500 same-sex couples have married in Massachusetts since the unions became legal in May 2004. In December 2005, opponents, led by the Massachusetts Family Institute, gathered a record 170,000 signatures for an amendment banning same-sex marriage. Patrick’s predecessor, Gov. Mitt Romney, supported that effort.

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, did not indicate whether opponents would start a new petition drive, but said, “We’re not going away.” He added, “We want to find out why votes switched and see what avenues are available to challenge those votes, perhaps in court.”

The vote reflected changes in the makeup of the legislature, the election of Patrick, and lobbying by national and local gay rights groups.

“This was the focus of our national community,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “Frankly, a loss today would have been very demoralizing.”

It is difficult to know how support for same-sex marriage has changed since legalization because polls taken before and after have asked different questions. The most recent poll in April 2007 found that 56 percent of those surveyed would vote against the amendment.