As several states debate measures to legalize gay marriage, New Hampshire is considering a repeal of its same-sex marriage law. The repeal has the backing of some top leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature. But rescinding rights is never easy, particularly in a state that takes its liberties seriously.
Supporters of New Hampshire's 2-year-old same-sex marriage law like to stress its purity, that it was enacted without a court order or the threat of one. So do its opponents. For them it's a reminder that if a Democrat-dominated Statehouse could vote in gay marriage, a Republican-dominated one may be able to vote it out.
Republican state Rep. David Bates, the author of the repeal bill, led a recent rally on the Statehouse steps.
"I think it's time to move back, back to the true meaning of marriage," Bates said.
Moving back will take some doing. Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, has promised to veto the repeal. But with New Hampshire Republicans — whose party platform defines marriage as between one man and one woman — enjoying veto-proof majorities in Concord, activists on both sides of the issue are taking little for granted.
Standing Up for New Hampshire Families, a group that supports gay marriage, says it has placed more than 15,000 calls targeting GOP state representatives seen as open to keeping the current law. The group has also hired a half-dozen lobbyists and deployed high-profile supporters like novelist Jodi Picoult and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.
"In 2010, the voters — particularly in New Hampshire — said, 'Government, get out of our lives,' " Mehlman says. " 'Live free or die,' to coin a phrase. So, I think the biggest concern I would have if I were a state official would be, 'I am ignoring the will of the people of New Hampshire.' "
Recent polls show New Hampshire voters oppose repealing gay marriage by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, but conservative Republicans see the repeal vote as a litmus test.
"I will do anything financially permissible and legally permissible to make socially liberal Republican legislators accountable," says Ted Maravelias, chairman of a New Hampshire political action committee that's raising money to oppose members of the GOP who vote to support same-sex marriage.
The National Organization for Marriage has already set aside $250,000 for the same purpose. Few lawmakers like to admit that such threats work, but many agree they'd just as soon skip the entire issue.
"I would be just as happy if it did not come up, but when I ran and people asked me about it, I said I would support traditional marriage," says Spec Bowers, one of the several dozen libertarian-minded Republicans swept into office in 2010.
These new lawmakers could end up deciding this issue. But on a matter that involves basic rights, representatives can be hard to pigeonhole. David Welch, a 14-term Republican, voted against the current gay marriage law, and says he still believes marriage should be reserved for heterosexuals. But he is adamant that revisiting the issue is wrong for New Hampshire.
"If you have given a right as we did, without my support, to take it back would be disenfranchising those folks who took advantage of it," he says, "and it would create a wedge."
The speaker of the New Hampshire House supports repealing the gay marriage law, but has yet to announce when it will be put to a vote.