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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bill would let wedding vendors refuse service to engaged same-sex couples

CONCORD – Legislation that would let business owners or employees refuse services to same-sex couples who are getting married touched off a torrent of opposition this week.

Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, is a co-sponsor of the measure he described as extending the current rights of any clergy to refuse to take part in a marriage they don’t believe in.

“There are a lot of angry people out there. I’m being called a jerk, a bigot, a hypocrite all because I believe individuals should be able to conscientiously object to playing a role in a marriage that’s not consistent with their beliefs,” Sapareto said. “I’ve never heard so much venom from so many ill-informed people.”

Religious and civil liberties leaders claim that under the bill, HB 1264, the state would give license to people ignoring anti-discrimination laws.

“This will lead to bigotry and discrimination,” said Roberta Barry of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. “Where does it stop? Will we be able to one day say it’s against my conscience to pay property taxes?”

The bill would permit any individual to refuse to give services, accommodations or benefits to work at any marriage that would be “a violation of the person’s conscience or religious faith.”

“A person’s refusal to provide services…shall not create any civil claim or cause of action or result in any state action to penalize or withhold benefits from such person,” reads the text of the bill.

This law could apply to florists, photographers, caterers or any other business traditionally part of a wedding ceremony.

This would be added to the 2009 state law Gov. John Lynch signed that legalized marriage for gay and lesbian couples.

Sapareto noted during debate on the same-sex marriage law, Lynch said he’d oppose it unless the clergy and anyone working for a religious group would be exempt from having to take part.

“People say I am denying rights and promoting hate. What about the rights of people who object to this?” Sapareto asked.

“I have friends who are gay, but why must we force a ceremony on people whose beliefs are that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman?”

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union has joined in opposition along with the Episcopal Church and other church leaders. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, however, supports the bill and had opposed the same-sex marriage law.

Many gay rights organizations are focusing their attention not on this bill, but on the move of House GOP leaders to repeal same-sex marriage.

A House committee has recommended passage of the bill repealing the law, though supporters insist that it not nullify the marriages of 1,600 couples since New Hampshire made same-sex marriages legal.

“Our opposition to such a bill should be pretty clear, but we don’t want to lose focus on our primary goal, which is to beat back repeal,” said Scott Spradling, a lobbyist for Standing Up for New Hampshire Families, a bipartisan group supporting same-sex marriage.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who disclosed in 2010 that he is gay, is coming to New Hampshire on Thursday to lobby for support of marriage for gays and lesbians.

A spokesman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party claimed the bill was in keeping with a House GOP leadership that is intolerant.

“Any kind of legalized discrimination is wrong and should not be something we should put into statute,” said press secretary Harrell Kirstein.

“This condones discrimination in all forms, religion, base and gender as well as sexual preference. So this means a Protestant baker could refuse to bake a cake for a Catholic wedding or a fundamentalist caterer could turn down working at a reception for an interracial couple.

‘’How about the Catholic DJ who could refuse to work at the marriage of a Jewish couple? The intent of this bill is awful and was written in a way that would be equally bad,” Kirstein said.

Because the bill allows businesses to turn away any couples with whom they would have conscientious or religious conflicts, opponents argue it could allow for discrimination against couples who are inter-racial or interfaith.

Sapareto said repeal of the same-sex marriage law would not necessarily erase the need for the legislation.

For example, business owners in Nashua could still be charged with discrimination for refusing to work at a same-sex marriage ceremony next door in Tyngsborough, Mass., where gay and lesbian marriage is also legal.

“We are talking about religion, and we are going to force religion on someone else by the force of law,” Sapareto said.

“Fifty years ago society tried to force racism and 90 years ago it was discrimination against women before they had the right to vote,” Sapareto said. “Whatever happened to respecting someone’s beliefs even if they aren’t what’s considered today to be politically correct?”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.