The New Hampshire legislature is gearing up for a fight over whether to repeal the state’s marriage equality law, but the fate of the bill will come down to how the divided Republican caucus dukes it out.
In November, a bill was introduced to repeal the 2009 law that legalized gay marriage in the state. Instead, the new law would allow civil unions for anyone who chooses to enter into one, including straight couples. The bill is not yet scheduled for a floor vote, though it will likely be taken up in February.
Though the smart money would be on the Republican-controlled — and theoretically veto-proof — legislature passing the repeal, it’s not as cut-and-dried as a party line vote.
For one thing, as the Concord Monitor explained on Sunday, Republican leadership is reluctant to address the issue at all.
House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt (R) and Senate President Peter Bragdon (R) both indicated at the beginning of the 2012 legislative session that the focus would be on financial issues, not social ones. This is part of the reason why the bill was initially scheduled to be taken up in January, but leadership delayed it until an unknown date in February.
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley (R), who voted against the law in 2009, said that before he could vote for the repeal, he wanted to see the language on civil unions strengthened so that couples, gay and straight alike, would be protected against discrimination.
Indeed, the language in the original bill is rather vague — so vague, in fact, that state Rep. David Bates (previously seen introducing a birther bill), confirmed to the Daily Caller last year that the bill would, theoretically, allow civil unions between siblings. “The proper question is: What logical or legally defensible reason is there to exclude anyone?” Bates said. “There is none.”
The bill also strips out anti-discrimination laws that would allow gay couples to bring legal action again people who don’t recognize their civil unions.
Rep. Lucy Weber (D) called it “the most mean-minded piece of legislation to come before me since I have been sitting in this House,” and decried it as a “masterpiece of muddled drafting.”
Bates, however, told the Union Leader that “in my opinion the definition of marriage never should have been changed to begin with.” He has since said that the bill “isn’t taking rights away from anybody,” but rather “trying to draw a bright line and make a distinction between [marriage and civil unions].” He did not return TPM’s request for comment.
Many Republicans do agree that this disctinction should be clear, but for slightly different reasons than Bates.
Rep. Seth Cohn, a Republican member of the libertarian Free State project, told the Concord Monitor that he opposes the repeal, and is planning to introduce an amendment that would remove the government’s authority to oversee marriages altogether. Instead, all couples would get civil unions and religious institutions will have autonomy over marriages.
Rep. Andrew Manuse, who serves as secretary of the Republican Liberty Caucus and is in the Tea Party, told TPM that he supports Cohn’s bill, though he also supports the “underlying” repeal bill “because the principle is that the current law uses the government to force a new definition of marriage on society, when in fact the government shouldn’t be taking part in any religious institutions.”
“It’s an action of tyranny rather than liberty that passed gay marriage into law,” he added.
Rep. Jennifer Coffey, who voted against the 2009 law, told the Concord Monitor that it wasn’t because she’s against gay marriage. “I voted against government defining marriage,” she said. “It doesn’t have the right to define marriage in any sense. It is a religious ceremony.”
Dave Nalle, the National Director of the Republican Liberty Caucus, told TPM that “there’s sort of a divided opinion on it” among New Hampshire libertarians. The RLC has around 30 members who are in the New Hampshire legislature, according to the website, and Nalle said that it puts New Hampshire’s RLC members in a unique position because “they have a reasonable expectation that they can replace [gay marriage] with whatever they want.”
While the members of the caucus “favor equal rights for gay couples across the board,” a number question “whether the best way to address that is gay marriage,” or rather to improve the civil union system. Some members of the caucus believe that civil unions are “more equitable,” Nalle said, because gay marriage “infringes on the rights of churches.”
In the original New Hampshire law, like in New York, the language had specific exemptions for churches and other religious institutions. Nalle acknowledged this, but added that the new concern is for “individuals who have religious beliefs who are not part of a church,” like wedding photographers who fear lawsuits if they refuse to take on gay clients. The RLC’s “general position on that is that we don’t think that people should be forced to do anything on principle.”
Though the repeal bill accounts for businesses, another piece of legislation, introduced last week, would stipulate in the existing marriage law that no one, including business owners or employees, would have to provide wedding services to anyone if it is in “violation of the person’s conscience or religious faith.”
Nalle agreed that should the repeal effort fail, “if that’s put forward, that would probably be the compromise answer.”
Gov. John Lynch (D) has repeatedly said that he would veto the bill if it reached his desk, and even reiterated in state-of-the-state address Tuesday that he opposes it.
And though in theory Republicans have the numbers to override a veto, which requires two-thirds of the votes, with all of the uncertainly and reluctance among the party it’s not clear that they will.
One lawmaker told the Monitor that it won’t happen. “I know for a fact, based on people I’ve talked to, that if Gov. Lynch vetoes it, that veto is not override-able,” Rep. Steve Cohn said.
A poll by University of New Hampshire found that only 27% of voters approve of a repeal, while 50% “strongly oppose” it.