Vote on possible repeal of New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage law expected in January
In fewer than two weeks, the New Hampshire primary season will have come to a close, and the presidential candidates will have fled the state like migrating birds. But many eyes around the country will remain focused on the Granite State as legislators prepare to take up one of the most controversial votes in recent history.
No date has yet been scheduled for the vote on legislation to repeal New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage law, but the state House of Representatives will likely take up the matter in mid-January, soon after the Jan. 10 primary, lawmakers said last week.
The gay marriage issue has been a headlining one in New Hampshire since it was first proposed last year. Presidential hopefuls have weighed in on the matter throughout the campaign season, and national interest groups like Freedom to Marry and the National Organization for Marriage have poured money and resources into their respective sides.
If the state Legislature passes the repeal measure, it will be the first in United States history to recant same-sex marriage rights.
“This vote has national ramifications. If we’re able to restore traditional marriage here, it will be the only time anywhere ever that a legislature has reversed its position,” said state Rep. David Bates, a Windham Republican and primary sponsor of the repeal bill.
“The rest of the country is watching,” said Ray Buckley, chairman of the state Democratic Primary, which opposes the bill. “What I feel sorry for is the nearly 2,000 couples that have married here. …These are families sitting on the edge of their chairs wondering, ‘Are we going to be a family next year?’”
According to Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a same-sex marriage advocacy group in Boston, more than 1,800 same-sex couples have married in New Hampshire since legislators enacted the law in 2009.
Should the repeal bill pass, those couples would remain married in the eyes of the law, and they would retain their legal rights and benefits, according to Bates, the bill sponsor. Moving forward, same-sex couples looking to become legally joined would be restricted to civil unions, similar to those honored in other states and those enacted here prior to the gay marriage law.
Some opponents of the repeal bill have raised questions about the legal rights afforded to couples under civil unions. The repeal legislation doesn’t specifically outline employment benefits and adoption rights, among other matters in the bill text. But Bates maintains that the civil union provisions would provide for the same legal rights as the marriage law.
“This isn’t taking rights away from anybody,” he said. “It’s trying to draw a bright line and make a distinction between (marriage and civil unions).”
Still, for many state residents, the issue is about maintaining equality and respect for all the state’s citizens.
Now that they are allowed to marry, same-sex couples have earned a measure of tolerance and respect in New Hampshire that few states offer, and repealing the law would be a step backward in the fight for human rights, advocates say.
“We don’t take away people’s rights in this state,” said Buckley, who is gay. “That’s not something we do.”
With the vote approaching, both sides argue they have public opinion on their side.
Supporters of the marriage repeal cite the 2010 elections, in which voters elected strong Republican majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.
“The voters never asked for gay marriage. And when they had a chance to speak out on the issue on Election Day last year, they threw out of office those who changed the definition of marriage,” said Jason Rose, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage, which recently formed the July Fourth Forum political action committee in New Hampshire to lobby for the repeal bill.
On the opposite side, however, opponents of the bill point to recent state polls that show public opposition to repealing gay marriage.
According to an October poll conducted by the UNH Survey Center, 62 percent of state voters oppose the repeal bill, compared to 27 percent who support it.
“The freedom to marry is a nonpartisan issue,” said Tyler Beaton, a spokesman for the group Standing Up for New Hampshire Families, a same-sex marriage support group founded and funded by the national Freedom to Marry organization. “Our group is really excited to have so many people from so many walks of life engaged and finding ways to help us.”
Both the July Fourth Forum and Standing Up for New Hampshire Families, however, are supported largely by national interest groups waging similar battles in other states. These groups – Freedom to Marry and the National Organization for Marriage – are pouring thousands of dollars and resources into New Hampshire, which is clouding the issue at the local level, advocates on both sides charged.
“Our issue with that is you have these national interests trying to direct policy in New Hampshire,” said Wendy Warcholik, executive director of Cornerstone Research, a conservative think tank in Concord, which has lobbied for the repeal bill.
Cornerstone has partnered with the National Organization for Marriage on advertising and other campaigns, though it hasn’t accepted any funding from the national group, Warcholik said.
“People in the state ultimately need to drive the pressure to their legislators,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Others argue that issues of marriage equality transcend state borders.
Freedom to Marry, which is supporting campaigns for same-sex marriage in Maine, Minnesota and other states, has contributed funding to the New Hampshire group, but the group’s operational decisions are left to its local leadership team, made up of New Hampshire business and civic leaders, according to Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry.
“When a law that affects people’s freedoms comes under assault, we want to be there to be supportive of the campaign on the ground that’s making the case and doing the work,” he said.
“This is certainly not a Democratic versus Republican issue. It’s a mainstream New Hampshire issue versus a pretty fringe group that’s trying to take away basic freedoms. …This has never been done before and it flies against New Hampshire tradition.”
Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.