New Hampshire governor backs gay civil unions

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire Thu Apr 19, 2007 5:26pm EDT

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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - New Hampshire's governor said on Thursday he will sign a bill that would make the state the fourth in the nation to allow same-sex civil unions, giving momentum to the socially divisive issue in the state that helps kick off the 2008 White House race.

New Hampshire's Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted overwhelming this month to give gay couples nearly the same rights as married couples. The bill was expected to reach the state Senate next Thursday.

"When or if the bill reaches the governor's desk he will sign it," said Colin Manning, a spokesman for Democratic Gov John Lynch. Most political analysts expect the state Senate to approve the bill, which would take effect January 1.

"The governor believes this is a matter of conscience, fairness and preventing discrimination," said Manning, quoting comments made by Lynch to local media. "The governor has been discussing the issue with lawmakers as well as people outside the statehouse. He wanted to hear all sides of the argument."

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' top court allowing gay couples to marry, the state passed a law that would not recognize gay marriages from out of state.

Last year's elections signaled seismic political change in New Hampshire, giving Democratic majorities to the legislature for the first time since 1874 in a state that was long a stronghold of moderate Republicans.

"The adoption of civil unions is an issue that also has wide bipartisan support," said New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley, who is gay.

SEEN LIKELY TO PASS

While the Democrats hold a large margin in the state's House of Representatives, they have just a slight majority in the Senate. But political analysts such as Arnie Arnesen, who ran for governor in 1992, said it should easily pass.

"It will fly through the Senate," she said.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Foster, a Democrat, said he was "very hopeful" it would pass.

The bill brings the divisive debate over gay rights into the state that traditionally holds the first primary in the presidential nominating process.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York praised Lynch and state lawmakers for the bill.

Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut said in New Hampshire this month he would hope his young daughters could enjoy marriage-like rights if they have a sexual orientation different from their parents.

In December, New Jersey became the third U.S. state to provide equal rights for gays and lesbians 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.

(Additional reporting by Jason Szep in Boston)

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