Behind the Scenes: New Hampshire Same Sex Marriage Law

The headlines are reading that New Hampshire just became the sixth state to pass a  same-sex marriage law but the behind-the-scenes maneuvering tells a more interesting story.

Two weeks ago on May 20, the House and Senate had passed another bill sanctioning gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies, but Gov. John Lynch threatened to veto it.

The bill as written exempted clergy from having to perform same-sex weddings, but Lynch [ also wanted safeguards for other church employees and contractors, such as organists and relationship counselors, who might have moral objections to facilitating same-sex marriage.  Senator Deborah Reynolds, a Democrat representing a more conservative region of the state, agreed, arguing that the governor’s compromise was “respectful to both sides of the debate and meets our shared goals of equality under the state laws for all of the people of New Hampshire.”

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

At first, one the bill’s main sponsors, Rep. Jim Splaine ( D), expressed optimism that amended legislation could move forward rapidly.  Both Senate President Sylvia Larson  (D) and House Speaker Terie Norelli ( D) predicted quick passage.

Instead, State Representative Steve Vaillancourt, an open gay Republican, and a handful of his supporters angrily sided with social conservatives in the Democrat-controlled House to vote down the amended bill 188-186, just hours after it had been approved in the Senate.  Vaillancourt declared that he was not going to be “bullied” into accepting an “inferior” bill with so many conditions on the right to same-sex marriage.

The compromise that finally passed did move in the governor’s direction: the legislature conceded the right of religious organizations to have final control over their doctrines and exempted churches from having to provide insurance and other benefits to same-sex spouses of employees.  Nevertheless, the stonewalling of Rep, Vaillancourt and his colleagues has escalated the stakes in the gay marriage debate.

Putting aside the merits of various arguments over how much the Constitution protects traditional religious practices, such as heterosexual marriage, efforts in earlier years to challenge laws based on Judeo-Christian values at least demonstrated the good sense not to coerce believers into morally objectionable acts.  The current wave of pro-gay marriage legislation goes a long step further and may be used to infringe on religious freedoms by requiring opponents to perform such marriages.

The 1962 Supreme Court ban on prayer in public schools did not remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, nor did it eliminate the option to educate one’s children at a religious institution or to home schooling them.  Similarly, the supposed right to an abortion does not force pro-life taxpayers to subsidize one.  Or at least it didn’t until President Obama rescinded the “Mexico City” policy.

What distinguishes the current wave of secular activism is its willingness — if not downright eagerness — to push fundamentalist Christians, Orthodox Jews, and other traditional believers into a political corner, where compliance with the rule of new law is tantamount to spiritual compromise.  This is seen most dramatically in the unwillingness to protect the religious workers from having to facilitate same-sex weddings, but surfaces with many other items on the liberal agenda: taxpayer funded abortion, state support for assisted suicide, and even the resistance to tax credits for parochial school tuitions.

This desire to coerce complicity from the faithful explains the harsh attacks by liberal ideologues on less extreme allies who sometimes try to find common ground with social conservatives.  Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, who appeared on many lists of candidates to succeed Supreme Court Justice Souter, has been bitterly denounced by gay groups like Georgia Equity for joining the staff of the New York-based think tank Institute for American Values — simply because the founder, David Blankenhorn, is personally opposed to same-sex marriage.

In fact, the institute itself takes no position on the issue and has scholars on both sides of the debate.  Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution researcher who has written in favor of gay marriage, has praised Blankenhorn and his institute for “trying to carve out a new center” on socially controversial issues; but a live-and-let-live center is not where today’s Left is content to go.

The good news for conservatives is that by pushing too hard for too much social activists will overreach and inadvertently strengthen their political opposition, which is what happened when the New Hampshire legislature’s attempt to repair its May 20 bill was unexpectedly defeated.

But it is nevertheless disturbing to realize how little America’s Left, which claims such deep insight when it comes to the earth’s ecology, understands of our social ecology – especially the dependency of the nation’s economic and civic vitality on the enthusiastic involvement of traditional religious believers.

At a recent conference organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, researchers Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented data showing that religious Americans are by far and away “better citizens.”  They are more generous with their time and money, join more civic organizations, attend more public meetings, start more businesses, and are three to four times more socially committed than the unaffiliated.

Those who lobby for the legalization of same-sex marriage, taxpayer-funded abortions, assisted suicide laws, and other affronts to traditional religious values like to portray themselves as free-thinking liberators, extending the civil rights movement that began for women and minorities a half-century ago.  But pursuing the kind of extreme agenda which, if enacted, would alienate the nation’s most productive citizens from their laws, their courts, and their political institutions seems a dubious sign of enlightenment.