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Friday, March 4, 2011

No end in ’11 to same-sex marriage law

CONCORD – The state’s 2-year-old law permitting gay and lesbian couples to marry is safe – for at least another year.

A key House committee voted Thursday to take off the table repeal of the state’s same-sex marriage law for this legislative session.

The 15-0 vote of the House Judiciary Committee effectively means two bills (HB 343 and HB 437) repealing the 2009 law won’t return to the full House of Representatives until early next year.

There was no debate in committee about the move.

Foes and supporters of same-sex marriage wanted the House to act definitively on repeal this spring.

“We are disappointed the Judiciary Committee did not defeat these bills today,” said Lew Feldstein, co-chair of Standing Up for New Hampshire Families, a pro-gay marriage group opposing repeal.

“Lawmakers just kicked the can down the road only to come back again next year to take up marriage, yet again,” he said.

NH Freedom to Marry Executive Director Mo Baxley said more than 1,400 same-sex married couples have merged harmoniously with the heterosexually married community and gained full acceptance.

As people live with the law and these marriages, they realize that it has no impact on their lives. They understand that gay and lesbian couples share the same values of other couples, like love, commitment and family,” Baxley said in a statement.

“This is why legislation overturning marriage equality should not be retained until next year but defeated and removed from consideration entirely. It should be sent to the dust bin of history.”

Cornerstone Action NH had lobbied for passage of repeal this year.

“While we would have preferred the legislature to take up these bills this year, we look forward to working with House Leadership and the new majority over the coming months to see that the state’s traditional marriage definition is restored next year,” said Executive Director Kevin Smith after the vote.

House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, had decided this divisive, socially conservative debate this year would distract from the GOP priority to adopt a balanced budget, pass an education funding constitutional amendment and formulate pension reforms.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, met privately with Republicans on the House panel before Thursday’s meeting.

The committee decided to retain these bills which keeps them in its custody until early in 2012 without a further vote of the Legislature.

The panel unanimously recommended killing a third bill (HB 569) to replace same-sex marriage with domestic unions for all adult partners, be they heterosexual or homosexual couples.

Easton Republican Rep. Gregory Sorg said there is no political support for domestic unions even though Gov. John Lynch signed a civil union bill for gay couples in 2007.

Lawmakers then replaced it with same-sex marriage. Lynch became the only sitting governor to have signed a law granting marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.

“It seems to me there is no longer a constituency in the House for domestic unions. It has not been a Republican issue,” Sorg said.

“I do not believe the Democrats are in favor of reverting to civil unions and I know the Republicans aren’t,” he said.

Walpole Democratic Rep. Lucy Weber said the domestic union bill posed more complications than the civil unions law the state previously had.

“I have a very grave concern with the way this bill was written as opposed to the way civil unions was written,” Weber said.

“If we change to domestic unions for everybody, I am very unclear with how that meshes with all the federal laws and tax provisions that give us benefits because we are married.”

Last month, more than 700 gay rights supporters packed Representatives Hall to call for the House to kill these bills.

Lynch has vowed to veto any bill to repeal same-sex marriage.

Some opponents of same-sex marriage were frustrated by the House GOP’s decision since two socially conservative groups spent more than $1.2 million to try and defeat Lynch and elect GOP legislative candidates.

Windham Republican Rep. David Bates authored one of the bills and decided at the 11th hour to drop his desire the House press forward this year.

“I have been assured the effort to restore traditional marriage will have the full support of House leadership when the time comes to take it up next year,” Bates said.

Some gay rights opponents want to go the route of amending the state Constitution. Bates had a proposed amendment for traditional marriage but agreed to withdraw it this year.

In all 31 states where the issue has gone to voters, the majority has embraced marriage only between a man and a woman.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.