EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 25, 2012

NH bill would allow refusal of services to gay couples

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

Don't want to provide wedding services to gay couples?

A bill before the Legislature would let people refuse services for religious or conscience reasons.

"We are concerned about clergy having to provide ceremonies against their belief," said Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, a bill co-sponsor.

Opponents say clergy already are protected and this bill would open the door for individuals, businesses — even government officials — to discriminate not only against gay couples, but those who are of different faiths.

"This really would open it up so all sorts of individuals could get out from under existing non-discrimination law," said Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for gay marriage.

What's especially concerning to supporters of same-sex marriage is the prospect of a town clerk or a judge being able to refuse to marry a gay couple, just because they disagree.

"They need to be issuing a license and performing the ceremony," Warbelow said.

Democratic Party spokesman Harrell Kirstein also was critical of the bill. "All discrimination is wrong and should not be codified in state law," Kirstein said.

House Bill 1264 had a hearing yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee, but Sapareto isn't expecting it to come out of committee and to a House vote for a couple of weeks.

The bill would put an exemption in state marriage law. The proposed text says no person, including a business owner or employee, should be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges for wedding services in "violation of the person's conscience or religious faith."

The bill also would protect against lawsuits arising from refusal to provide those services.

Sapareto acknowledged the sponsors oppose gay marriage. "Our definition of marriage is heterosexual," he said.

Sapareto has drawn personal criticism because of the bill. He said he's been called a bigot for raising the issue. "They're completely intolerant," Sapareto said of opponents.

Sponsors say they aren't confident the state adequately protects clergy from being forced to officiate at gay marriages. However, "clergy are covered explicitly in the original New Hampshire marriage law," as well as under the federal Constitution, Warbelow said.

Sapareto said he expects the legislative debate to be over whether the bill should protect businesses. "I think it should," he said.

The bill would let caterers, wedding photographers and restaurants discriminate against couples, Warbelow said.

"A Protestant baker could refuse to bake a cake for a Catholic wedding," Kirstein said. "This fosters lawsuits. What happened to the (Republican) promise of focusing on jobs and the economy? The only jobs this creates is for lawyers."

The sponsors aren't motivated by hate, according to Sapareto. He said he believes people who are gay should have the same rights as others, but not be able to get married. Marriage, he said, is between a man and a woman.

"We are finding our opponents are constantly interested in expanding exemptions," Warbelow said.