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N.H. bill seeks to change marriage law

Critics say move targets gay unions

CONCORD, N.H. -- One of the Legislature's most ardent marriage activists says his latest bill on the issue is meant to brace the separation between church and state, but critics say it would potentially threaten liberal denominations that perform ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Fremont Republican Daniel Itse wants to expand part of the law exempting certain religions from obtaining licenses to perform marriages because they do not have ordained clergy.

"You have to wonder why you're seeking permission from the state to perform a religious ceremony," he said. "That's the nugget -- it's probably the first religious ceremony ever performed, according to the Bible, so why are you seeking permission from a secular state to do so?"

Itse said the bill corrects perceived inequities in the law and protects religious officials from a $60 fine for performing a marriage without a license, though he acknowledged the penalty is rarely assessed. The current law makes exceptions for rabbis and Quakers.

He opposes gay marriage and is a sponsor this year of a constitutional amendment to ban it, but he denied that the goal of this bill is to clip gay-friendly clerics or provide an obstacle to legal recognition of same-sex couples.

"In my opinion, it is neutral to that," Itse said.

Rabbis and ministers say their desire for a clear separation between civil and religious marriage is why they're distressed by Itse's bill, which would permit religious officiants of any stripe to solemnize marriages according to custom, "provided that such marriages do not conflict with existing state law prohibiting marriage between persons of the same sex."

At the very least, they're puzzled by its intent. The bill, which goes before the House Judiciary Committee today, does not break new ground, because same-sex marriage is illegal in New Hampshire and civil unions do not exist; it's silent on penalties for clergy who defy the order. At worst, rabbis and ministers call it an infringement on religious freedom and an attack on congregations that offer marriage and union ceremonies to same-sex couples.

"I think it's meant to quash clergy who are talking about officiating at what they would define as a marriage and not caring whether the couple had a valid marriage license," said Rabbi Richard Klein of Temple Beth Jacob, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Concord.

He said he believes the bill is a response to a growing sentiment in the liberal clerical community to stop asking for licenses from couples, gay or straight, seeking religious marriages.

"If there is no state statute that would permit a same-gender type of ceremony, then my feeling is that a same-gender ceremony is simply a religious matter," said Rabbi Larry Karol, leader of Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in Dover.

He said he worries about the consequences. "This seems to imply some kind of penalty [that] I think really affects my religious freedom," he said.