New Hampshire gay-marriage bill may get tangled up in senate

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire Tue Apr 14, 2009 2:39pm EDT

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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - A bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New Hampshire may get tangled up in the state Senate, lawmakers said, potentially slowing momentum of the nation's gay-marriage movement after recent victories.

New Hampshire's Senate Judiciary Committee holds a public hearing on the bill on Wednesday ahead of a full senate vote expected this month or early in May.

Debate over the bill in the 190-year-old gold-domed State House in Concord puts the "Granite State" at the center of America's culture wars after a week in which the number of states allowing same-sex marriage doubled from two to four.

Several senators in the Democrat-controlled legislature contacted by Reuters speculated the bill would face defeat, citing Democratic Governor John Lynch's opposition, or be tabled indefinitely so lawmakers can avoid taking a stance on the issue ahead of elections next year.

After the hearing, the Senate Judicial Committee votes on the bill by early next week, said Senate Majority Leader Margaret Hassan, a Democrat. The full 24-member Senate votes between April 22 and the first week of May, she added.

"Obviously the governor's views are always important to legislators," Hassan said. "I'm not going to speculate on the bill's chances. The senators are really working hard to be thoughtful about this and to make sure the public has an opportunity to be heard."

The governor last year signed into law a bill recognizing same-sex civil unions. He has not said he will veto the gay-marriage bill, which would redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, but his opposition is clear.

"The governor hasn't supported same-sex marriage, but the civil unions bill he signed into law provides the same protections for all New Hampshire families," said the governor's spokesman, Colin Manning.

Gay marriage made big inroads this month when, in a single week, Iowa and Vermont joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in allowing gay couples to legally wed. Another eight states are set to vote on similar moves this year, including New York.

While many state Democrats declined to comment, plenty of Republicans are voicing their opposition, suggesting a possible reprise of last year when the senate approved a bill that made New Hampshire the fourth state to legalize gay civil unions in a 14-10 vote along party lines.

That means gay marriage could face defeat if just four Democrats take their cue from the governor and oppose it.

"It's going to be close in the senate. It is such a political football," said Mo Baxley, director of New Hampshire Freedom to Marry, a gay-marriage advocacy group. "But I have no doubt this will happen here. The question is when."

Unlike its famously liberal neighbor Vermont, which in 2000 blazed a trail by becoming the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex civil unions, New Hampshire has deeper conservative leanings.

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.

But elections in 2006 signaled a seismic political change in the state, giving Democrats majorities in both chambers of the legislature for the first time since 1874 in a state that was long a stronghold of moderate Republicans.

State Senator Ted Gatsas, a Republican, said he is opposed to the bill. "I think the senators minds have been made up and we'll wait for the debate on the floor," he said. The state's eight other Republican Senators also appear opposed to it, said Senate Minority Leader Peter Bragdon, also a Republican.

(Editing by Jason Szep)

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