New Hampshire Law Exempts Religious Groups From Same-Sex Marriages

For years, Religious Right organizations have claimed that if same-sex marriage is legalized, conservative churches will be forced to perform such unions or accommodate same-sex couples in other ways.

That’s certainly not the case in New Hampshire, where a recently passed law legalizing same-sex marriage contains a host of exemptions for religious groups.

HB 73 was signed into law by Gov. John Lynch June 3 after Lynch requested a series of modifications to the bill to make it clear that many of its provisions will not affect the rights of religious bodies.

The law states that religious organizations and their employees may refuse to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies and reiterates the point that religious organizations retain exclusive control over their doctrine and beliefs.

The New Hampshire House of Representatives had at first balked at Lynch’s request for changes to the bill, but several members changed their minds to get the bill passed.

“Let’s vote this one last time,” said Rep. Anthony DiFruscia, a Republican from Windham. “Church and state should be separate.”

In the Senate, Deborah Reynolds, a Democrat representing Plymouth, said the compromise language provides “equal rights for all and the right to religious freedom.”

Although the new language helped get the bill passed, it probably was not necessary. Most legal scholars agree that the Constitution’s First Amendment ensures that no houses of worship or ministers could be compelled to perform a same-sex ceremony, just as pastors may refuse to perform marriages for heterosexual couples who do not meet certain theological standards.

In California, advocates of same-sex marriage suffered a setback when the state supreme court upheld a ban on gay marriage passed narrowly by the voters in 2008.

By a 6-1 vote, the California high court said Proposition 8 was not an unlawful “revision” to the state constitution. Such a “revision” would have required action by the legislature.

Prop. 8 passed after a heavy lobbying campaign and infusion of cash from religious groups, including fundamentalist Christian bodies, the Mormon Church and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Americans United, the Anti-Defamation League and 30 other civil rights and civil liberties groups joined the effort to overturn the same-sex marriage ban, filing a friend-of-the-court brief asserting that a bare majority of voters should not be permitted to remove fundamental rights from a minority group.

AU asserts that civil governments have no business writing theological definitions of marriage into civil law.

“If Proposition 8 can strip fundamental rights from gay and lesbian people by a 52 percent majority, future amendments can strip away fundamental rights from other disfavored groups based on race, national origin, gender or religion,” read the brief.

Although the California Supreme Court upheld the Prop. 8 vote, it approved the 18,000 same-sex unions that were performed during the period gay marriage was legal.

That part of the ruling angered Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

“The court’s recognition of these ‘marriages’ clearly seeds the ground for a possible legal battle before the U.S. Supreme Court,” Perkins said in a statement.