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April 02. 2014 9:22PM

Opposition grows to sexual orientation constitutional amendment

CONCORD — A proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation was opposed by one of its sponsors Wednesday because it would not apply to transgender individuals.

That was not the only opposition to Constitutional Amendment Concurrent Resolution 17 as others said the sexual orientation needs to be more clearly defined and the proposed changes more thoroughly studied before letting voters decide in the next general election.

But supporters argued the change is needed to prevent lawmakers from backtracking from the progress New Hampshire has made as it has led the nation in equality for gays.

Without the constitutional amendment, said the bill's prime sponsor, Sen. David Pierce, D-Hanover, lawmakers could roll back hard–earned protections for the gay community.

"You will hear representatives today asking to roll back these protections," Pierce told the House Judiciary Committee. "There is focus outside the legislature by advocacies groups who also want to roll back protections."

The state currently has laws forbidding private business from discrimination based on sexual orientation in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations, he said, and the constitutional amendment would prohibit the state from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

"The (state) constitution does not regulate private conduct, it only regulates what the state can and cannot do," Pierce said. "The constitution does not tell individuals and churches what they can and cannot do."

While Pierce said the change would only prohibit the Legislature for passing laws that discriminate, others said a change in the constitution would have more far reaching effects.

"We don't know enough about this to throw this into the constitution," said Bryan McCormack, Cornerstone Action executive director. "We don't know the reaches of this or how it will be utilized in the future."

He and others said far more study is needed to determine what the change could cost the state, cities and towns, and counties and their correctional systems.

Others were concerned the term sexual orientation was too board and could include pedophilia, bestiality or incest.

Robbin MacVittie of New London said she is not saying gays are pedophiles, but "we don't know what (sexual orientation) means and it could change if you put this terminology into the state constitution."

The constitution currently reads "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by this state on account of race, creed, color, sex or national origin." The proposed amendment would add "sexual orientation" to the list.

CACR 17 passed the Senate last month on a 23-0 vote, but ran into opposition Wednesday both from religious groups and from long-time advocates for the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender community including the marriage equality bill passed in 2009.

Bill sponsor, Rep. Ed Butler, D-Hart's Location, who is chair of the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee, asked the Judiciary Committee to send the bill to interim study because it fails to cover transgender individuals.

Although it would be a great achievement for the state to pass CACR 17 and enshrine constitutional protections for equality, the gay, lesbians, bisexual and transgender community has stood together to win those rights, he noted.

But he said the transgender community has yet to realize many of those protections, and he does not believe the amendment would apply to them.

More work needs to be done before transgender individuals have the same securities and protections gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals have, Butler said.

Long-time advocate before the Legislature, Mo Baxley of Laconia agreed with Butler saying more time and thoughtful review is needed to ensure that a change in the state constitution is "inclusive for all Granite Staters."

But others said the time is now to pass the constitutional amendment. Brenden Denehy of Brookline, who said he has advocated for equality for about 20 years and at the beginning saw "people wearing bags over their heads because they feared begin fired or evicted if people knew they were gay, lesbian or bisexual."

He said New Hampshire has an opportunity to make history by being the first state to protect all is citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation. "We have long been a leader in equality," he said, "now we have the chance to be first."

A three-fifths majority is required to advance the proposed change by both the Senate and the House.

If the resolution passes the three-fifths threshold in the House, it will appear on the ballot in November, where it will require a two-thirds majority of the voters to be added to the constitution.

The House Judiciary Committee will meet later to determine what recommendations to make on the resolution.

grayno@unionleader.com


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