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MY TURN

Amendment just muddies marriage bill

Repeal plan raises myriad questions

This week, the New Hampshire House will be asked to finally vote on HB 437, which proposes to repeal the 2009 Marriage Equality Act. This bill has seen a number of false starts since January 2011 when it was first introduced. In the meantime, polls have consistently shown that the majority of New Hampshire voters - over 62 percent - do not support repeal of the 2009 law, which has now seen almost 2,000 couples marry in our state.

The latest twist in the HB 437 saga is an amendment from Republican Rep. David Bates of Windham that would still repeal the popular law but would also put a nonbinding question on the November general election ballot, asking voters: 'Shall New Hampshire law allow civil unions for same-sex couples and define marriage as the union of one man and one woman?' This is expected to be proposed on the House floor this week.

There are a number of problems with this, the most fundamental of which is that New Hampshire is not a referendum state. California is a referendum state, if that helps to put this into perspective. New Hampshire has the third-largest legislative body in the English-speaking world, and legislators here are closer to the voters than almost anywhere else. Taking this to the voters as a 'nonbinding question' makes no sense, will cost money, and will waste the time of town and city clerks who will have to count and record the votes on a question that does not accomplish anything. There will clearly be a fiscal impact, but Bates has not acknowledged it.

Further, this would set a bad precedent. Right now, questions on the ballot are limited to serious proposals to amend the state Constitution which have met super-majority votes of the Legislature to first get onto the ballot and then of the electorate to be adopted. Allowing legislators to put their own special interest inquiries on the ballot just to take the temperature of voters - as a sort of popular opinion poll - will clutter the ballot, confuse voters and burden the process unnecessarily.

A proposal to put this question forth as a true constitutional amendment was proposed two years ago, was the subject of a public hearing, was debated on the House floor, and was rejected, 201-135. We have been down this road before.

Asked why his proposed ballot question should not simply - and more honestly - ask, 'Do you support repeal of the 2009 Marriage Equality Act?', Rep. Bates said that he likes his wording better. Putting an emotionally charged, leading question before voters and hoping they choose to support a minority point of view seems to me to be intellectually dishonest and disrespectful of the voters.

The base problem, however, is that civil unions are not the same as marriage. Separate but equal was thrown out over 50 years ago in this country. Saying that one group of citizens has the right to marry and that another group is relegated to a lesser status is discrimination, pure and simple. In New Hampshire, we don't take away rights that were given to our citizens three years ago, and that's what the Bates amendment will do. Changing the law now, after so many individuals and families have taken advantage of it, will hurt people. That is not speculation; that is fact.

Before the House acts on the Bates proposal for a nonbinding referendum question, we need to get a lot more answers about the process, fiscal impact and precedents this would create. We also need to know what problem this seeks to solve, which is the question all responsible legislators must ask themselves before they vote to enact or repeal any law.

Have any voters been denied the opportunity to express their opinion on marriage equality? Has anyone been prevented from testifying on HB 437? Has there been a groundswell of public desire for a statewide referendum? Has the Marriage Equality Act of 2009 hurt any individual, family, business, nonprofit organization, city or town? Of course not.

'No' is the answer to all of these questions, and 'No' is how responsible House members should vote on HB 437 and the Bates floor amendment.

(Rick Russman is a former Republican state senator from Kingston.)