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  • Staff photos by Bob Hammerstrom

    Donna Swartwout, left, and Linda Murphy talk about their New Hampshire wedding last New Years Eve during an interview Thursday, December 30, 2010, at their home in Hudson.
  • Courtesy photo

    Linda Murphy, left, and Donna Swartwout exchange vows during their wedding last New Years Eve.
  • Staff photos by Bob Hammerstrom

    Linda Murphy, left, and Donna Swartwout talk about their wedding last New Years Eve during an interview Thursday, December 30, 2010, at their home in Hudson.
Sunday, January 2, 2011

Same-sex marriage threatened

A full moon illuminated the clear midnight sky last New Year’s Eve when Donna Swartwout and Linda Murphy became the first couple joined under New Hampshire’s new same-sex marriage law.

But this year, as the Hudson couple celebrates its first wedding anniversary, storm clouds are already threatening.

Twelve months after Swartwout and Murphy joined about 12 other couples for a group ceremony on the steps of the Statehouse in Concord, they find their union under siege by state lawmakers, who have prepared at least four draft bills seeking to repeal same-sex marriage rights.

One of the bills, still in its initial phases, would revert state law to civil unions rather than full marriage rights, legislators say, while another would call for a full constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

It’s unclear what effect any of the bills, if passed, would have on the estimated 1,500 couples married this year.

“I thought we were past this. We got married. We don’t think we’ve harmed anything,” said Murphy, 51, who left Friday for the Florida Keys, where she and Swartwout, her partner of 20 years, will celebrate a delayed honeymoon.

“I never thought a year (after our wedding) we’d be in Florida, wondering if we’re on a honeymoon or a vacation.” Swartwout, 49, continued. “I never thought we’d have to go through this again.”

Elected in November, leaders of the Legislature’s new Republican majority have vowed to give priority to the budget and other fiscal issues, leaving gay marriage and other social issues a distant second.

“This is not a focus of what we’re doing the first half of this term,” state Rep. William O’Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican and the newly appointed House Speaker, said last week.

“To be honest, I haven’t given it too much thought,” echoed Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford. “It might come up at some point, but it’s not one of the primary concerns on the minds of most voters.”

Other lawmakers, however, aren’t as prepared to wait.

While some House members work to craft the Fiscal Year 2012 budget, others could work through the spring to shape the repeal legislation, sending a bill to a vote by the end of the legislative session in July, said state Rep. Leo Pepino, a Manchester Republican, who introduced one of the proposals.

With a 297 to 103 advantage in the House, and a 19 to 5 divide in the Senate, Republicans could have the two-thirds majority necessary to override Gov. John Lynch, who has promised to veto any repeal bill.

In 2008, the Democratic-led legislature passed the marriage law with 198 votes in the House and 14 in the Senate, becoming the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage.

“I think we have the votes (to repeal),” Pepino said last week. “We have a lot of really good conservatives and a good conservative doesn’t believe in gay marriage. … It’s a matter of ethics.”

To combat the efforts, same-sex marriage advocates have already returned to the grassroots efforts that helped the marriage bill pass in the first place, they said last week.

Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a Boston-based legal rights organization, has started to reach out to state legislators, according to staff attorney Janson Wu.

The New Hampshire Freedom To Marry Coalition, a Concord-based advocacy group, also has renewed its letter writing campaign, and coalition leaders have scheduled public meetings across the state to inform the public about the repeal efforts, according to Executive Director Mo Baxley.

“It’s grassroots,” said Baxley, a former state representative. “We’re doing everything we can to reach as many people as we can, sharing the stories of our couples, our families.”

Those stories tell of new families that can now adopt children and share health benefits, Baxley said.

“We’ve been fortunate. We haven’t had to … deal with (health) things. But if we had to, I would feel a lot safer now,” said Murphy, who is now registered as Swartwout’s legal guardian and has power of attorney in the case of a medical emergency.

Just as significantly, however, the marriage law has helped to expand the language across the state, couples and advocates said – helping to create a greater culture of understanding and acceptance.

“It gives people something, a word they can understand. I can say that she’s my wife and people understand,” Swartwout said, looking lovingly toward her partner.

“A lot of people worked very hard (for that),” Murphy continued. “To see that taken away … these are rights. I think people understand that. I’m going to remain optimistic.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.