CONCORD, N.H. – After lying dormant for nearly a year, a state commission to study gay marriage and civil unions roused itself last month – and during its first full meeting immediately ran into problems when its Republican chairman locked horns with the Democratic governor.
The dispute, over appointments to the panel, was resolved. But it was an inauspicious start for a commission already months behind schedule, and one played out against a backdrop of more rights and better conditions for gays and lesbians in other New England states and neighboring Canada.
Commission members now are rushing to make up for lost time, organizing four public sessions across the state and preparing a final report due Dec. 1. But lingering questions over the commission’s basic purpose has some wondering whether the panel can complete its work thoroughly or on time.
“The perception – right or wrong – that’s out there now is that this is not a commission that is going to come up with anything,” says state Rep. Bette Lasky, D-Nashua.
Much depends on state Rep. Tony Soltani, an Epsom Republican who professes to being nonplussed by his role as commission chairman.
“It came out of the Judiciary Committee so they went down the line and called me and said ‘Would you do it?’ and I said yes,” he said. “All of a sudden I’m the chairman and all of this hullabaloo going on.”
Soltani attributes the slow start to the lack of a staff and money to send out mailings and schedule meetings. Others said the group simply lacked the political will to organize.
Lawmakers set up the commission last year to study the legal implications of recognizing same-sex unions. But at least one of the 15 commissioners, Dover paralegal Jack Fredyma, wants to focus not just on lesbian and gay couples, but on households composed of adult siblings and other family groupings. Fredyma has proposed a “partnership registry” that would include “extended families related by blood that cannot marry.”
Lumping together sibling and parent-child households with same-sex couples strikes some as distasteful and inappropriate.
“It’s red-herring material. We are talking about relationships between committed couples,” said state Rep. Gail Morrison, a Tilton Democrat who favors gay marriage. “I think it is distracting from the charge of the commission.”
Similar questions came up in 2000 when Vermont was moving toward legalizing civil unions, said Tom Little, then chairman of the Vermont House committee that crafted the civil unions bill. To gays and lesbians, being thrown in with various nontraditional family groupings “had this sort of air or whiff of incest that to them was repugnant, and rightly so,” Little said.
“The social or familial relationships in question are so fundamentally different and frankly the gay couples, the lesbian couples, don’t want to have the same relationship between the two of them as they do with a mother or sister or brother or father. It’s an intimate, romantic, lifelong, committed relationship that’s fundamentally different.”
Vermont did address some of the problems of nongay family groupings in 2001 by creating “reciprocal beneficiary partnerships,” but no one signed up during the first year.
In contrast, the response to civil unions for gays was strong and positive.
“All couples testified as to the stability afforded by the relationship, from the ability to form a lasting commitment recognized not only by the state, but by family, co-workers, friends and the community,” according to a report by the Vermont Civil Union Review Commission.
Both sides of the gay marriage debate are represented on the New Hampshire commission, but its leaders tend toward the anti-marriage side.
Soltani, who spoke out for last year’s gay marriage ban, recently gave other commissioners copies of a book, “What’s Wrong with Same-Sex Marriage,” that describes homosexuality as an “unnatural lifestyle” and accuses gay Christians of “trying to twist the Scriptures to justify their sin.” Soltani said his goal was to ensure commissioners had as much information as possible.
In response, Commissioner Ed Butler, co-chairman of the New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Coalition, passed out another book, “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.”
“I would have hoped that the commission would be more balanced in its views on civil marriage,” Butler said. “If you quickly look at people’s voting history and stances relative to GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] issues, it seems that the commission is not evenly weighted.”
The roster appears to support his view. Scott Earnshaw, head of the New Hampshire Traditional Marriage and Family Institute, recently was named commission vice chairman. Earnshaw says concerns about the effects of nontraditional partnerships on children give him “serious reservations” about recognizing them, but he said he believes all commission members are open to differing views.
Three other commission members (Sen. Jack Barnes, then-Sen. Russell Prescott and Rep. Paul Brassard) were sponsors of last year’s gay marriage ban.
In another defeat for New Hampshire gays, the Legislature soon will consider a new contract for state workers. The deal does not include benefits for same-sex partners – something the union has lobbied for, but which lawmakers have refused to approve.
It is nearly a year since gays and lesbians were allowed to marry in Massachusetts. Vermont was the first state to legalize same-sex unions in 2000. Last month Connecticut lawmakers voted to allow civil unions, in advance of possible court decisions that would have pressed them to adopt marriage. Maine recently enacted an anti-discrimination law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, credit and other areas based on sexual orientation.