MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - A divisive debate over gay culture and morality is moving into the U.S. state that helps kick off the 2008 White House race, as New Hampshire lawmakers consider a bill to allow same-sex civil unions.
New Hampshire's Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted overwhelming to give gay couples nearly the same rights as married couples by voting 243 to 129 on Wednesday to allow civil unions for gays and lesbians.
Political analysts expect the state Senate to follow suit and approve the bill, which must be signed by Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat who has publicly expressed opposition to gay marriage and has not indicated if he will sign it into law.
"My guess that there are the votes to pass it," Peter Hoe Burling, a Democrat who is deputy majority leader in the state senate.
Debate over the bill in New Hampshire, which would make the state the fourth in the nation to allow same-sex civil unions, looks set to keep the issue alive in the 2008 presidential race.
New Hampshire holds the first primary in the presidential nominating process and often provides momentum for the winning candidates in contests to come.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut has already weighed into the state's same-sex civil union debate, telling high school students in Concord he would hope his young daughters could enjoy marriage-like rights if they have a sexual orientation different from their parents.
"We ought to be able to have these loving relationships," he said. "How would I want my child to be treated if they were of a different sexual orientation?"
While the Democrats hold a large margin in the state's House of Representatives, they only have a slight majority in the Senate.
But Andy Smith, University of New Hampshire associate professor of political science, said he believes the bill will pass. "It's all going to depend on the governor," he said, noting that a majority of residents support civil unions.
Colin Manning, Lynch's press secretary, said the governor needs to first discuss the bill with lawmakers before making a decision. Before elected, Lynch helped to extend health benefits to same-sex couples but he has opposed gay marriage.
If passed, the law would be a shift for traditionally conservative New Hampshire. In 1987, the state outlawed same-sex marriages. In 2004, in response to Massachusetts's top court allowing gay couples to marry, the state passed a law that would not recognize gay marriages from out of state.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester expressed concern over the vote.
"Same-sex marriage and the concept of civil unions undermine the unique position of marriage in society," said Patrick McGee, a spokesman for the diocese. "It's the unique relationship between a man and a woman. That unit serves to build society and offer stability."
New Jersey became the third U.S. state in December 2006 to provide equal rights for same-sex couples in committed relationships known as civil unions that lack the full legal protection of marriage.
Vermont and Connecticut also recognize same-sex civil unions. California, Maine, the District of Columbia and Hawaii each offer gay couples some legal rights as partners, while Massachusetts is the only state where gay marriage is legal.