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N.H. bill targets same-sex marriage

Effects to be sweeping, gay advocates caution

CONCORD, N.H. -- Warily eyeing Massachusetts, Republican legislators in New Hampshire are pushing a bill that would specifically prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The bill is being proposed partly in reaction to recent developments in Massachusetts, where the state Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that gays and lesbians have the right to marry. Same-sex couples are due to be granted marriage licenses in Massachusetts starting May 17, and that has added urgency to the efforts of gay marriage opponents in the Granite State.

About 350 people gathered at the New Hampshire State House yesterday to hear more than three hours of testimony on the bill. So many people showed up that the hearing had to be moved to the New Hampshire Hall of Representatives to accommodate the crowd.

"We should not let the courts of any state define what happens here in New Hampshire," said Senator Jack Barnes, a Raymond Republican and one of the cosponsors of the bill.

GOP legislator Robert J. Letourneau of Derry said the bill "makes clear that 2,000 years of natural order, and 250 of the United States' definition of marriage, stays intact."

Among those who testified against the bill was Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay man elected a bishop of the Episcopal Church, who has himself been at the center of a divisive national debate over the rights of gays and lesbians.

"Is the institution of marriage that fragile as to be threatened by the existence of love and commitment elsewhere?" Robinson asked.

The law's effect would be sweeping, said gay advocates, blocking recognition not only of gay marriages performed elsewhere, but of civil unions and possibly domestic partnership rights, as well.

"Essentially what they're saying is, `We will deny marriage rights, respect for civil unions, and any individual rights or protections associated with marriage to committed couples in same-sex relationships,' so it's fairly broad," said Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the lead lawyer for plaintiffs in the SJC case that granted marriage rights to same-sex couples in Massachusetts.

The proposed law reads, in part: "This state shall not give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other state, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage or the legal equivalent of marriage under the laws of such other state, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship."

Robinson called the bill a misplaced effort.

"If the proposers of Senate Bill 427 were really interested in protecting marriage, they would be focused on the failing economy, which requires husbands and wives to work two and three jobs to make ends meet," he said."If this were really about protecting marriage, they would be proposing a resolution not to recognize weddings performed at Las Vegas wedding chapels for people who had just a bit too much to drink. Can we all agree that Britney Spears did more to undermine the institution of marriage in the 55 hours between when she said `I do' and `I don't' than any gay or lesbian couple?"

But a leading Catholic official said the very definition of marriage "needs to be protected by civil authority as a means to protect marriage itself."

The Rev. Edward J. Arsenault, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, said: "If other relationships are granted status equal to that of marriage, then the basic building block of marriage is undermined. To allow marriage to be redefined would set in motion an unraveling of the basic structures of family and society."

New Hampshire already has a law, enacted in 1987, prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying. While some believe that the law banning same-sex marriages in New Hampshire would also prohibit recognition of such unions performed in other states, sponsors of the bill want that prohibition made clear in the law.

In recent years, the Granite State has seen the issue of gay unions pressing in on its borders. In 2002, the Vermont Legislature enacted a law granting civil unions to same-sex couples, giving gay and lesbian couples some of the same rights as heterosexual couples.

But it is unclear whether the rights and protections won in Vermont would extend beyond the state's borders.

Six times within the last 11 years, New Hampshire legislators have proposed measures to specifically prohibit recognition of same-sex couples, without sucess. The Massachusetts ruling has redoubled their efforts now.

"It's something we've been dealing with for years now," Bonauto said. "They're just using Massachusetts to rejuvenate their efforts that have failed so far. This is a long-term campaign by people who just don't accept gay and lesbian families as part of the citizenry. Here we go again."

House Democratic leader Peter H. Burling criticized those who proposed the bill, calling it a "distraction by the Republican leadership in order that they don't have to talk about the real issues in this state."

"We are not about to allow gay marriage here," said the Cornish Democrat. "In fact, it is already illegal. But it is an election year, and they want to appeal to their Republican base. We can't pay for schools, can't run functioning prisons, and this state has serious budget problems."

Legislators will reconvene to vote on the bill on March 2.

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