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Same-Sex Union Controversy Moves Into New Hampshire

The state already bars such marriages, but lawmakers discuss extending its reach.

February 18, 2004|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.H. — The same-sex marriage dispute steamed into New Hampshire on Tuesday, as what was intended to be a staid legislative committee hearing turned into an impassioned public outpouring.

After the location was moved twice for lack of space, more than 500 people filled the Capitol assembly hall here, normally used for the full House of Representatives.

And unlike the shouting and singing that took place in Boston last week, foes and supporters of same-sex marriage -- about equally divided -- patiently waited for more than two hours before lawmakers arrived to discuss "an act relative to the definition of marriage."

"I'm tickled pink," said state Sen. John Barnes, a Republican who opposes same-sex marriage. "We have more people in this room than we have when the Legislature is in session."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 19, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Gay marriage -- An article Wednesday in Section A about the same-sex union controversy in New Hampshire incorrectly identified Bishop Gene Robinson as head of the Episcopal Church in North America. He is the bishop coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States is Frank T. Griswold.

The move in New Hampshire to close a statutory loophole that would acknowledge same-sex unions from out of state was underway even before a court ruling made neighboring Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriages, beginning in May.

But the issue took on heightened urgency here as legislators watched their Massachusetts counterparts last week unsuccessfully grapple with a constitutional amendment to ban gay and lesbian marriages. Weekend news clips of same-sex couples in San Francisco, waiting in lines to take out marriage licenses, made New Hampshire lawmakers all the more determined to deal with the matter.

The same impetus was in force Monday as Georgia's Senate passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The proposed amendment will now be considered in the state House.

"They forced it to the surface in Massachusetts. They forced it to the surface in California," said Sen. Mike Crotts, a Republican who sponsored the Georgia resolution.

Legislation to restrict or prohibit same-sex marriage -- such as proposed amendments to state constitutions -- is pending in 18 other states, some of it ratcheted up in recent days because of the uproar in Massachusetts.

Thirty-eight states have "defense of marriage" statutes, following the 1996 federal law restricting marriage to a union between a man and a woman. In addition, Maryland and New Hampshire have laws barring same-sex marriage that are not based on the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

But New Hampshire, legendary for the "Live Free or Die" philosophy emblazoned on its vehicle license plates, typically chafes at government regulations under the least controversial of circumstances. On at least half a dozen occasions in the last decade, Granite State lawmakers have shot down measures that would bar recognition of same-sex unions from other states.

"The sense was it was just too hypothetical to think about," said Scott Earnshaw, a lawyer who heads New Hampshire's Traditional Marriage and Family Institute, a conservative nonprofit organization.

But with gay and lesbian marriages already in the planning stages one state to the south, Earnshaw said, "It's no longer hypothetical."

New Hampshire law prevents a man from marrying a man or a woman from marrying a woman -- calling such unions void and incestuous.

"In regards to discrimination, we do not allow cousins to marry in New Hampshire," said Rep. Bob Letourneau, a Republican. "You cannot marry your sister or your brother, and we don't allow blind people to drive."

If same-sex marriage supporters prevail, Letourneau argued, "What about a person who loves their pet? Should we allow them to marry?"

A University of New Hampshire survey last week showed that 55% of those questioned supported same-sex marriage and 41% opposed it, poll director Andrew Smith said.

The survey was commissioned by New Hampshire's Freedom to Marry Coalition -- a group that supports same-sex marriage. Smith said 511 randomly selected adults were interviewed; the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. He said the poll results were "almost identical" to a survey taken in New Hampshire last spring.

"People tend to want to leave other folks to their own devices here," said Beth McGuinn, a conservationist from Hopkinton, N.H., and a coaliton founder.

But with the activity in Massachusetts, McGuinn said, the tenor has changed in her state.

"Certainly there is a different tone than there has been in the past," she said. "Nobody ever knows what the outcome of these things will be -- and now it seems more uncertain than ever."

Darrell Hodgins, who recently moved to New Hampshire from Cincinnati to care for an aging relative, wore a badge Tuesday indicating his support for the bill that would invalidate same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

"I don't believe in same-sex marriage," he said. "I think it is immoral; it is illegal; and it has no place in society."

Hodgins said he worried that the expansion of marriage laws to include gays and lesbians in Massachusetts was "part of a nationwide trend -- but Massachusetts happens to be close by."

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