By Doug Ireland
Hearings are scheduled in the Legislature this week to repeal the state's same-sex marriage law. But two new polls say the majority of New Hampshire residents surveyed want it to remain intact.
Bills sponsored by Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, and Rep. Leo Pepino, R-Manchester, would derail the 2-year-old law. Polls just released by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center and New Hampshire Freedom to Marry indicate many Granite Staters oppose a repeal.
The Survey Center poll shows 62 percent of the 520 adults surveyed are against a repeal, including 51 percent who are strongly opposed, while 29 percent back the move. Nine percent were neutral, according to the poll, conducted between Jan. 27 and Feb. 6.
The poll by New Hampshire Freedom to Marry said 63 percent oppose efforts to prohibit gay marriage, while 23 percent support a repeal. The poll of 622 voters was conducted between Jan. 30 and Feb. 3 by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.
But Bates said Friday he remains confident his legislation, House Bill 437, will pass in the House and Senate, but face a veto by Gov. John Lynch. House Judiciary Committee hearings on his bill and the proposal filed by Pepino are scheduled for Thursday morning in Concord.
Bates said he doesn't place a lot of faith in telephone surveys when voters have already spoken on the issue. Last year, residents across the state voted in favor of a chance to vote on a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
It was a nonbinding question on ballots in many towns, including Danville, Hampstead, Kingston, Londonderry, Newton, Pelham, Plaistow, Sandown and Windham.
"I find this more meaningful than any telephone survey," the Windham lawmaker said. "I put a lot more stock in actual votes that you cast."
House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, has said the same-sex marriage issue won't be a priority for legislators this session because of important fiscal issues that must be addressed first.
He reiterated that message Friday, saying tackling the state's budget deficit, providing tax relief and creating new jobs are the top priorities. Bates said he is disappointed the full Legislature won't be voting on the issue this year but stands behind party leaders' decision.
"My preference would have been to deal with it now rather than later, but I understand leadership's reasoning," he said.
Pepino could not be reached for comment on the poll results. A third bill to be heard by the Judiciary Committee on Thursday allows for "domestic unions." The two other bills disallow civil unions.
Mo Baxley, executive director of New Hampshire Freedom to Marry, criticized the legislative leadership for scheduling hearings on the Bates and Pepino bills.
"They have decided that taking away the freedom to marry is more important right now than dealing with the state's budget crisis and economic situation, the worst since the Great Depression," he said in a statement. "Voters overwhelmingly say their number one concern is the economy. Yet lawmakers like Reps. Bates and Pepino would rather pursue a fringe agenda that hurts New Hampshire families."
Former Rep. James Splaine, D-Portsmouth, who sponsored the same-sex marriage bill that became law, said fiscal matters should take precedence in Concord instead of efforts to repeal the law.
"There are so many other things they should be doing at the Statehouse, such as jobs and the economy," he said. "I think a lot of Republicans, like Democrats, know there are other important issues."
The two bills send the wrong message, Splaine said.
"It's not the New Hampshire way to take away people's rights," he said.
Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said his Granite State Poll shows those who strongly oppose repeal of gay marriage outnumber strong proponents, 2-1. Overall, most people seem to have no problem with same-sex marriage, he said.
"It largely hasn't created much controversy for the general public," Smith said.
Danville resident Kate Russell, who married longtime partner Lynn Taylor on the day the gay marriage law took effect, said the measure should be left alone.
"I think the people who are looking to repeal it are in the minority right now," she said. "They have their own agenda. I think it's religiously driven. ... People, let's move on."
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