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STATE HOUSE

Gay marriage repeal bill no sure bet

GOP lawmakers differ on same-sex unions

While the fate of a bill repealing same-sex marriage in New Hampshire remains uncertain, two facts are not in dispute:

Republicans hold veto-proof majorities, with votes to spare, in the House and Senate. The state Republican Party platform defines marriage as "the legal union between one man and one woman" and opposes "all other forms of civil unions, regardless of where such unions were formed."

So what's so hard about getting it done?

"It is certainly disappointing to me," Sen. Fenton Groen, a Rochester Republican who has been vocal in his support of the repeal, said last week. "I think that, in the House particularly, we have a significant libertarian caucus within the Republican Party. . . . And there are some Republicans who differ on that within that caucus."

The 2010 elections entered a wave of Republicans from varying backgrounds, all generally united in a desire to cut spending and lower taxes. Where this group stands on the 2009 marriage law, an issue that turns on ideology and life experience, has never been as clearly defined. With lobbyists on both sides of the issue gearing up efforts to sway a House vote expected in the coming weeks - creating lists of those for and against and on the fence, urging constituents to pepper their lawmakers with phone calls and emails - legislators are wondering how their colleagues will finally come down on the issue.

"I'm for liberty and freedom, leaving people alone so long as they don't harm or defraud other people," said Rep. Steve Winter, a Newbury Republican who opposes the repeal.

Winter, a 73-year-old retired airline captain, was Senate clerk under Republican former Senate president Tom Eaton from 2002 to 2006. He considers himself a "fiscal conservative and a social libertarian."

"I believe what people do with their lives, how they select their mates, is none of my business and none of the state's business," Winter said.

Rep. Seth Cohn, a Canterbury Republican who moved here as part of the Free State project, a libertarian movement to relocate to New Hampshire, is also against repeal. Cohn and others believe the bill may pass the House but does not have the two-thirds majority to override a potential veto by Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who signed the bill three years ago legalizing same-sex marriage.

"I know for a fact, based on people I've talked to, that if Gov. Lynch vetoes it, that veto is not override-able," Cohn said.

Cohn said he plans to introduce an amendment on the House floor that would take government entirely out of marriage, instead giving all couples a civil union and leaving marriage up to churches and other religious institutions. That same approach is supported by the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, a libertarian-leaning group that endorsed 107 House members elected in 2010.

Carolyn McKinney, chairwoman of state's Republican Liberty Caucus, said the group has not taken a position on the repeal bill, which presents "a little bit of a rift among the libertarian types."

"There's two different minds when it comes to this bill: The first is obviously the individual liberty aspect, that people should be allowed to do what they want to do," McKinney said.

On the other hand, McKinney said, some argue recognizing gay marriage could infringe on religious liberties, such as clearing the way for public schools to teach all marriages as equal against the conviction of a child's parents. McKinney is personally in support of repealing the law because she believes families are stronger when built on a marriage between a man and a woman.

"The family is one major bulwark against a large and intrusive state," McKinney said. "When we have stronger families . . . the less need there is a for a strong, centralized government."

Rep. Andrew Manuse, a freshman Republican from Derry, was an early member of the Tea Party movement and serves as secretary of the Republican Liberty Caucus. Manuse said the 2009 law "was forcing a definition of marriage that does not exist in society as large."

"To me, that's not liberty. That's tyranny," he said.

Manuse said he would also prefer a measure that removes government from defining marriage entirely, and freshman Republican Sen. Jim Forsythe of Strafford, the Liberty Caucus's treasurer, says he is considering an amendment in the Senate similar to Cohn's. Manuse said despite having a firm position in support of the repeal effort - unlike Forsythe, who is undecided - he doesn't want to be known as a leading voice for the cause.

"I've tried to stay out of this issue as much as possible," Manuse said.

That unwillingness to take up the mantle in opposition to same-sex marriage has extended to top lawmakers in both chambers. Early last year, after House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt did not include the issue in his Republican agenda, the National Organization for Marriage sent out a mailer in his legislative district accusing him of standing "with Governor Lynch" and not supporting "traditional family values."

Bettencourt wrote a letter to House Speaker Bill O'Brien, who has openly opposed same-sex marriage, arguing that the bill should be put off for a year.

"An assault on our agenda has the potential to take important focus and energy away from our focus on the budget," he wrote.

When the 2012 session began this month, Bettencourt said the session would center on attracting jobs and business while "Democrats and some in the media remain obsessed with social issues." Senate President Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican, said 2012 would be an "unsexy" affair for his chamber, focused on rolling back business taxes and regulations.

Gay marriage supporters in New Hampshire say the current of public opinion favors their side. A University of New Hampshire survey in October found 62 percent of residents oppose the repeal and 27 percent support it. The rest were neutral.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Smith, who spent three years as executive director of socially conservative group Cornerstone Action, had advised against retaining the repeal bill for 2012 after it was introduced last year by Rep. David Bates, a Windham Republican.

"I thought they should just deal with it quickly and let the chips fall where they may," said Smith, who is also a registered lobbyist for the National Organization for Marriage, which is advocating the repeal bill.

If the bill is passed by the House and Senate and vetoed by Lynch, Smith said lawmakers should quickly attempt an override vote instead of letting the issue linger and seeking to pick up additional support.

"My advice to the Legislature is: If you're going to drag out issues, let them be the issues that matter most to the people, which are jobs and the economy," he said.

Former House speaker Gene Chandler, a Republican from Bartlett, voted against making gay marriage legal in 2009. He said the silence from some lawmakers this time doesn't mean they haven't made up their minds, but rather "they don't want to get dragged into it."

"It's kind of one of those issues we're going to have to deal with but wish we didn't have to, in my opinion," Chandler said.

Chandler said it's a tough decision whether to support repeal, but he's leaning toward his previous opposition to same-sex marriage.

"At the risk of getting 500 phone calls, I'd say I don't know," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley also voted against the gay marriage law. But before he could support the repeal bill, he said, language establishing civil unions for same-sex and heterosexual couples must be strengthened so all employers and other entities would be required to recognize them. Additionally, the Wolfeboro Republican has concerns that civil unions are defined so broadly as to allow business partners to qualify.

"These are deeply personal issues," Bradley said. "Leadership in the Senate is not going to push people one way or the other."

Groen said "it's always harder to repeal something than prevent it from passing."

"If we were attempting to pass gay marriage in this Legislature, I think it would fail 60-40," Groen said.

Like Groen, some legislators are ready to address the repeal effort head on. Sen. Ray White, a Republican from Bedford, has long been a social activist in the state and published conservative newsletter New Hampshire Family Watch in the mid-1990s. As a small business owner, however, he said his motivation to run for Senate in 2010 was solely to improve a "terrible business climate."

White said his opposition to gay marriage stems from his father divorcing his mother in 1968, when White was 8 years old. White's father then married his secretary.

"That left a real impression on me," he said. "I still carry those memories and those scars."

White said his experience in a broken home fueled his belief that a family with a mother and father is the best environment to raise children. "I wouldn't say every family is Ozzie and Harriet, but I do think that's the best setup," he said.

Rep. Jennifer Coffey's view has also been colored by life experience. The Andover Republican, a nurse's assistant for 16 years, remembers a terminally ill woman who had been estranged from her family for 20 years because of her relationship with another woman. When the family she hadn't talked to for decades came to visit her in the hospital, they did not allow the woman's partner in the room.

"It really stuck in my mind," she said. "There are certain things you see in health care that break your heart."

Still, Coffey - who considers herself a "Goldwater Republican," a "little-'l' libertarian" - voted against the gay marriage law in 2009. Now, she plans to vote against repealing it, but says her position has been consistent all along.

"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."

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)

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