By Lisa Keen
On Wednesday, April 29, the New Hampshire Senate voted 13 to 11 to approve a bill providing for equal marriage rights for gay couples. The New Hampshire House approved a same-sex marriage bill on March 26. The new version, passed by the Senate, must now go back to the House for concurrence. The House had not yet gone to vote as of press time.
It was a dramatic victory for New Hampshire and marks the third time a state legislature – behind California and Vermont – has approved equal marriage rights bill. (California did so twice but was vetoed.) The Democratic Governor, John Lynch, has said he opposes same-sex marriage but has backed off such statements recently. If the bill survives, New Hampshire will become the fifth state in the nation to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples the same as straight couples – and the fourth to do so in the past year.
Just as the New Hampshire Senate began debating the same-sex marriage bill at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, one key opponent – Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Deborah Reynolds – announced she would now be supporting the bill, dramatically increasing the possibility of Senate passage.
Reynolds said that concerns she had when she initially opposed the bill in Committee last week had been addressed in a proposed compromise amendment. She asked the Senate to reject the Judiciary’s original recommendation against the bill and take up a newly rewritten proposal.
The Senate quickly did so on a 13 to 11 vote.
The Senate then began debate on whether to substitute the new language for the original bill. Sen. Margaret Hassan of Concord said the amended bill was a compromise that addressed many of the concerns constituents had about the original bill. She said many people have learned that the state’s existing civil union option “stigmatizes same-sex couples” and further discriminations. She said the bill, as reconstituted, “reaffirms the tradition and sanctity of religious marriage.”
The Senate voted 13 to 11 to substitute the new language and then voted 13 to 11 to approve the bill.
The bill, as rewritten, says all citizens have a right to a civil marriage or religious marriage and that every religious denomination has right to decide whether to perform same-sex marriages. It says that each applicant for a marriage license can choose how to be designated on the marriage license, as either a bride, groom or spouse.
Other changes in the bill include a specification that a person must be at least 18 years old to enter into a same-sex marriage. And it provides that civil unions from other states will be recognized as marriages in New Hampshire; that civil unions under current New Hampshire law will automatically become marriages starting in 2011; and that no one can be married to more than one person at a time.
The bill provides for the law to take effect on January 1, 2010.
Prior to the vote in the Senate, the legislature’s joint Judiciary Committee voted against the same-sex marriage bill on a three to two tally, with the Democratic chair Reynolds telling the Concord Monitor newspaper that the state is “just not there yet.”
But that’s not what a statewide survey showed. Released Tuesday, a poll of 491 voters showed 55 percent support allowing gay couples to obtain marriage licenses, and 39 percent oppose. The poll was conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center between April 13 and 22 and was commissioned by the New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Coalition.
Showdown in Maine
More than 3,000 people showed up at a convention center in the capital of Maine April 22 to register their opinions for and against allowing same-sex couples obtain marriage licenses. And on Tuesday, the Joint Judiciary Committee voted 11 to three to approve the measure. The hearing lasted 10 hours, taking brief statements from almost 200, according to the Portland Press Herald.
The Maine Senate then voted April 30 on whether to advance a bill seeking to establish equal marriage rights for gay couples. They passed the measure 20 to 15.
The bill then went to the House of Representatives on May 5 where, after a three-hour debate, the measure was approved 89-57.
The only remaining question is whether or not the state’s Democratic Governor John Baldacci will sign the legislation. The Morning Herald newspaper in Augusta said Baldacci stated in 2005 that he was against same-sex marriage but seemed to back off that statement a year later when he was running for re-election. In April, Gov. Baldacci commented that he was keeping an open mind on the issue.
And the biggest wild card may be once again on the ballot. Opponents of gay marriage have vowed to mount a drive for a referendum, something they have done many times before on gay issues.
But Equality Maine Executive Director Betsy Smith said “the momentum is with us,” citing the recent victories in Iowa and Vermont.
Iowa, Connecticut, New York
The Des Moines Register reported April 27 that “at least 360” same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses in Iowa that day, the first day the state made marriage licenses available to gay couples the same as to straight couples. The Register said only 26 of that number were out-of-state couples. Most licenses were issued in Polk County, the most populous county and located in the center of the state, surrounding Des Moines. As in Massachusetts and some other states, couples who apply for marriage licenses in Iowa have a three-day waiting period between when they obtain the license and when they can be married but can seek a waiver of that waiting period from a judge. The Register and other papers reported that some judges turned down requests for the waiver.
Meanwhile, although the Connecticut Supreme Court had already ruled that the state constitution required gay couples be treated the same as straight couples in marriage licensing, the state legislature last week passed a law establishing that right.
And on Tuesday, the New York Assembly’s Judiciary Committee took up discussion of the same-sex marriage bill New York Governor David Paterson introduced there.