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February 25. 2012 11:47PM

Change vowed in bill to repeal gay marriage

The sponsor of a measure to repeal the state's same-sex marriage law says he plans to propose a floor amendment to try to win over opponents — one that may remove its “religious liberty” clause if that's what it takes to pass it.

In an interview Friday, Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, said that language in the current form of the bill is “at the very least going to be changed, if not eliminated.”

“I'm going to strip out some of the language in here that is causing angst for some people,” he said.

HB 437, as amended and passed by the House Judiciary Committee in November, would define marriage as “the legally recognized union of one man and one woman.”

It would allow “civil unions,” defined as “a contractual agreement that provides reciprocal benefits and obligations to the parties to the agreement.” And it would entitle those parties to all the “rights, obligations and responsibilities” that apply to those joined under RSA 457 — the state's marriage law.

Bates said some lawmakers have expressed concerns about the “religious liberty” section of his bill, which would bar penalizing any “individual, corporation, entity, association, educational institution or society” for refusing to solemnize or treat as valid any civil union if that violates “their sincerely held religious or moral beliefs.”

Bates said opponents have “tried to make it sound like this was going to just completely undo or wipe away all of the anti-discrimination statutes that we have in effect, which is just simply nonsense.”

Under the existing same-sex marriage law, clergy members are not obligated to perform a marriage ceremony if it violates their religious beliefs. Bates said the current version of his bill embraces the same principle when it comes to civil unions. “I still feel, just as the governor put in protections for people not to be compelled to participate in a same-sex marriage ceremony, there should be similar things protecting people from being compelled to participate in a civil union,” Bates said.

But he said, “I would rather see the bill pass with nothing in there regarding religious liberties rather than insist on keeping this in there and having the bill fail as a result of it.”

The original version of HB 437 just prohibited same-sex marriage; it didn't include civil unions. But Bates said amending it to allow civil unions was “a necessary compromise” that was included “out of deference to those other members of the Legislature who think that we need to have some sort of state recognition of these relationships.”

“I don't agree with that but it's obviously necessary in order to have the level of support we need to pass it,” he said.

Former Rep. Jim Splaine, a Portsmouth Democrat who sponsored both the civil-unions law in 2007 and the same-sex marriage law two years later, said a civil union as defined in Bates' amended bill is “only a business partnership between two people that nobody has to recognize.”

And he said that “makes a bit of a mockery of the issue itself.”

“I think the powers who be, the people on the other side, finally realized that they could not justify taking marriages away from people who currently had them, so they came up with this gimmick,” Splaine said.

Bates said he also plans in his floor amendment to change another section of the bill that states: “Children can only be conceived naturally through copulation by heterosexual couples.”

“Because of this biological reality, New Hampshire has a unique, distinct and compelling interest in promoting stable and committed marital unions between opposite-sex couples so as to increase the likelihood that children will be born to and raised by both of their natural parents,” it says.

Some have interpreted that as a ban on artificial insemination, Bates said, which was not his intent. “It's just a simple statement of fact, not a prohibition of anything,” he said.

But he said he will either remove that language or change it “so it can't possibly be misread.”

“One of my objectives with the floor amendment is to remove any language that gives people an excuse to not support this,” he said, “without compromising the fundamental purpose of the bill: to restore the proper meaning of marriage and to implement civil unions.”

Bates would not say when he expects the bill to come up for a vote in the full House.

Still, if HB 437 doesn't pass with the super-majority needed to overturn a promised veto by Gov. John Lynch, Bates vowed to introduce a repeal bill again next year. And that one may not include civil unions at all, he said.

The state will elect a new governor in November and Bates said, “I will do everything I can to see to it it's somebody who will support a return to the true meaning of marriage.”


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