State Senate passes gay marriage

CONCORD — The State Senate endorsed making New Hampshire the fifth state in the country to allow gays and lesbians to marry.

The surprising outcome followed two days of private meetings between Senate Democrats that produced a different bill than the one the House had narrowly approved last month.

The new proposal (HB 436) affirms the tradition of religious and civil marriages but allows all couples including gays and lesbians to pick which marriage they wish to have.

The new marriage law would start Jan. 1, 2010 and by Jan. 1, 2011 all those gay couples who are in civil unions would automatically become gay marriages.

Gov. John Lynch has previously said he believes marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman but has not said he would veto a same-sex marriage bill.

The Senate passed it, 13-11 with all 10 Republicans and Manchester Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro in opposition.

All other Senate Democrats backed it.

The amendment prompted Plymouth Democratic Sen. Deborah Reynolds to go from opponent last Thursday to supporter today. Manchester Democratic Sen. Betsi DeVries, who represents Litchfield, had told associates she was against the House-passed measure.

“I commend those who have worked so hard to reach a compromise that affirms the importance of the religious sanctity of marriage, provides for the use of bride and groom and now makes civil marriages available for all,’’ Reynolds said.

Raymond Republican Sen. Jack Barnes said it’s up to Lynch to stop this.

“Our governor is the only one who can defend the sanctity of marriage,’’ Barnes said.

A key passage in the amended bill reads:

“Equal Access to Marriage. Marriage is the legally recognized union of two people. Any person who otherwise meets the eligibility requirements of this chapter may marry any other eligible person regardless of gender. Each party to a marriage shall be designated “bride,’’ “groom,’’ or “spouse.’’

The House bill had taken out all references to bride and groom prompting critics to call it a campaign for a genderless marriage.

Derry Republican Sen. Robert Letourneau said marriages for society’s sake must be protected as a heterosexual tradition.

“We as legislators and citizens need to recognize that we are the stewards of what has been passed down to us over generations and not to make traditions fungible and just because there is an election,’’ Letourneau said.

Hanover Democratic Sen. Matthew Houde said same-sex marriage is a matter of time.

“This issue is not a question of if for me it’s a question of when,’’ Houde said. “We should be eager to be on the right side of this issue and proud to do so.’’