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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Gay marriage advocates on Monday launched a campaign to try to overturn California's same-sex marriage ban, hoping to become the first U.S. state to convince voters to approve gay people's right to wed.
In the five states where gay marriage is permitted -- Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont -- the right was achieved through court and legislative action.
In every state where the issue has been put before the voters, gay marriage has been rejected. Last year California passed its ban, known as Proposition 8, and voters in Maine overturned a state law allowing same-sex marriages two weeks ago.
"All eyes are on California now," said John Henning, executive director of Love Honor Cherish, a California gay rights group, and one of the leaders of an effort to gather a million signatures to place the measure on the November 2010 ballot in California.
Signature-gathering began on Monday after the state approved proposed language for the ballot, and the group has until April to hit its goal of about a million.
Many Californians are weary of the same-sex marriage battle, which has come before the state Supreme Court twice in two years and has already been put to the voters once.
A Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll early this month found almost 60 percent did not want to revisit the issue in 2010, even though most surveyed favored gay marriage, by a margin of 51 percent to 43 percent.
Many backers of same-sex marriage want to wait until a younger generation gets to voting age. In the poll, support was highest -- 71 percent -- among the 18-29 age group.
"We are in the last stages of a right-wing attempt to basically discriminate against people," said Rick Jacobs, who heads the Courage Campaign, a grass-roots group focused on gay and lesbian issues, referring to what he saw as a generational change.
Social conservatives have proved to be adept organizers in ballot campaigns, and any voter campaign over the gay-marriage measure is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars on both sides of the issue, although Henning hopes technology will save money and improve organization.
Bigger gay rights groups, including Equality California, have expressed concern that next year's election may be too soon to change enough minds to win the vote.
California's Proposition 8, which limited marriage to a union between a man and a woman, passed with 52 percent support a year ago. The vote surprised gay rights advocates and handed a major victory to the social conservatives who oppose gay marriage.
Forty-one U.S. states explicitly prohibit gay marriage, including 29 with constitutional amendments restricting marriage to one man and one woman, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group.
California's top court had legalized same-sex marriage earlier last year. The ballot language approved by the state to go before voters next year -- if supporters get a sufficient number of signatures -- states that the measure "reinstates (the) right of same-sex couples to marry."
Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by Will Dunham and Chris Wilson