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North Dakotans have overwhelming approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, a highly contentious issue that also was being decided in 10 other states.

With 38 percent of precincts reporting, the measure had 74 percent approval, or 68,586 votes, to 26 percent, or 23,998 against it, unofficial returns showed.

The North Dakota measure will limit marriage rights to man-woman couples, and also will restrict civil unions, which give homosexual couples many of the same rights as heterosexual married couples.

Christina Rondeau, director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, which coordinated an initiative campaign to get the measure on the ballot, was confident North Dakotans would approve it.

"People have grabbed on to this issue," she said. "It has not taken a lot of money on our part to advertise and to get people's attention. It was like people were waiting for someone to take the lead."

Equality North Dakota chairman Robert Uebel, a spokesman for gay and lesbian rights, said his group worked hard to inform voters that the issue "goes well beyond just simply defining marriage." He said the amendment also could affect such things as domestic partnership benefits.

The measure will add two sentences to Article 11 of the North Dakota Constitution: "Marriage consists only of the legal union between a man and a woman. No other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as a marriage, or given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect."

Supporters of the amendment said it was a response to lawsuits in other states that sought legal recognition for same-sex marriages. In Massachusetts, the state's highest appeals court ordered gay unions to be recognized.

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Backers of the amendment said it was needed to preserve the traditional family structure, and encourage the rearing of children in households with a father and mother. They argued the amendment would not prevent homosexual couples from declaring their commitment to one another.

Opponents said the measure was discriminatory, and that data does not show that children who grow up with gay parents are in a poor environment.

North Dakota's Constitution allows residents to bypass the Legislature and put constitutional amendments and state laws to a vote.

The North Dakota Family Alliance collected 42,093 legal petition signatures, far more than the 25,688 names required by law to put the matter on the ballot.

In 1997, the North Dakota Legislature approved a law barring state recognition of same-sex marriages. The Family Alliance, fearing a judicial override of the law was possible, wanted to go a step further and add similar language to the state constitution.

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