After a yearlong string of victories nationwide, the campaign for gay marriage hit an unexpected snag Wednesday when the New Hampshire House rejected a bill that also included legal protections for religious institutions.
The House voted down the legislation 188-186, shortly after the Senate approved the bill 14-10 on a party-line vote. Both Democrat-led chambers had approved a same-sex marriage bill and sent it earlier this month to the governor for his signature.
But Gov. John Lynch sent it back, asking the legislature to include language that would protect churches and other religious institutions from prosecution if, for example, they refuse to perform same-sex marriages.
"If the legislature passes this language, I will sign the same-sex marriage bill into law. If the legislature doesn't pass these provisions, I will veto it," Mr. Lynch, a Democrat, said in his May 15 statement.
Despite the vote, the same-sex marriage issue remains in play in New Hampshire. The Senate's passage means the legislation now goes back to a conference committee, where lawmakers will attempt to resolve differences between the two chambers.
But the House vote throws a wild card into what had been considered an easy victory for gay-marriage proponents. The House has now taken three votes this year on same-sex marriage bills, twice rejecting such legislation and only once approving it.
"I think this shows once again that there's no consensus in the House on this issue," said Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research Action in New Hampshire, which opposes same-sex marriage. "If you look at the votes, they're all over the place."
The biggest problem for vote-counters is which House members will show up for any given session. The chamber has 400 members - the largest state body in the nation - and they are paid just $100 per year, which means that many of them hold day jobs and can't make every vote.
Wednesday's 188-186 vote marks the largest turnout at any of the same-sex marriage votes. The House rejected the earlier bill March 26 by a margin of 183-182, then passed it later the same day by a margin of 186-179.
Those voting against Wednesday's bill included Republican lawmakers who oppose gay marriage, but also some Democrats who objected to the governor's attempt to amend the legislation.
"You have legislators who don't want gay marriage, you have legislators who are mad at the process, and then you have a faction of legislators who are upset with the governor for punting it back to them," Mr. Smith said.
Another source of uncertainty is how the governor will react to having his amendment tweaked.
"The House has something a little different in mind, so we have to wait and see what the compromise language looks like and what Governor Lynch has to say about it," said Dean Spiliotes, a former political science professor who runs New Hampshire Political Capital, a Web site covering and analyzing state politics. "It may very well come back to the governor, and he may sign it, but this adds another level of uncertainty."
The House vote came as a surprise to many politicos, given that legislative leaders had indicated that passing the governor's amendment would be a slam-dunk.
"Publicly, there wasn't a sense that this would be a big deal," Mr. Spiliotes said.
The unexpected rejection is also expected to give opponents of same-sex marriage another opportunity to turn back the legislation, with the emphasis on urging the governor to stick by his veto statement.
"Unless the governor goes back on his word again, which didn't go over well the first time, I don't see how he can justify not vetoing this," Mr. Smith said.
Advocates will have to wait at least a couple of weeks for the legislature's next move. The House isn't scheduled to meet again until June 4, with the legislature slated to adjourn at the end of June.
Four New England states - Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine - have legalized same-sex marriage, with all but Massachusetts approving it this year. A fifth state, Iowa, saw gay marriage legalized in March after the state Supreme Court ruled that the traditional definition of marriage violated the state's equal-protection clause.
Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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