May 20, 2009 / 7:25 PM / 8 years ago

Gay-marriage bill stalls in New Hampshire

<p>Same-sex couple Stuart Hata (L) and Mark Cadena walk a hallway in City Hall after their wedding ceremony in San Francisco, California November 3, 2008.Robert Galbraith</p>

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - A bill that would have made New Hampshire the sixth state in the United States to authorize gay marriage stalled unexpectedly Wednesday over concessions to religious groups opposed to such unions.

The state's House of Representatives objected to language in the bill that would have allowed religious groups to decline to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies or to offer gay couples other services.

A handful of gay-rights proponents sided with Republicans in the Democratic-controlled House to vote down the bill 188-186 Wednesday, hours after the Senate approved the gay-marriage legislation by 14-10 along party lines.

A version of the bill with more limited religious protections passed the state's House of Representatives on March 26.

Gay marriage opponents, mostly religious conservatives, see it as a threat to the "traditional family" that is ordained by God and the foundation of civilization. Supporters often compare it to the path blazed by the civil rights movement that fought for equal rights for black Americans and women.

To strike a compromise, both chambers had been asked to approve language that would give clergy and others affiliated with religious organizations a number of legal protections, including the right to decline to marry same-sex couples or to provide gay couples with services such as counseling.

The wording was added by Governor John Lynch, a centrist Democrat who said previously that marriage should be exclusively between a man and a woman but agreed last week to sign the bill if his changes were made.

Lynch has said Vermont and Connecticut, two nearby states that have legalized gay marriage, enacted stronger measures to protect religious institutions.

The vote against the governor's amendment sends the bill to a committee where lawmakers from both chambers will try to resolve their differences.

Threatened Veto

"We recognize this is part of the normal process of passing significant legislation and I look forward to working with my House colleagues on this bill," said Senate President Sylvia Larsen, a Democrat.

The governor has said he would veto gay marriage if his wording was not adopted.

"The governor articulated strong principles that needed to be included in order for him to sign the bill," said the governor's spokesman, Colin Manning. "While he will continue to talk with lawmakers, those principles must be maintained in any final version of the bill."

State Representative Steve Vaillancourt, an openly gay Republican, was a leading voice against the amendment securing religious liberties, saying the House should not be "bullied" by the governor.

He said an earlier bill that passed both chambers and was on the governor's desk should have been made law, calling the amendment a step backward that would allow discrimination to be written into New Hampshire law.

"We are pleased that common sense prevailed," said Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research, which has campaigned against same-sex marriage in New Hampshire.

The debate comes five years after neighboring Massachusetts allowed the nation's first same-sex marriages.

Connecticut last year became the second state to legalize gay marriage. In April, Iowa and Vermont followed suit. This month, Maine's governor signed a gay-marriage bill and the New York State Assembly passed similar legislation.

Editing by Jason Szep and Peter Cooney

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