N.H. Lawmakers Approve Civil Unions

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007; 2:28 PM

HART'S LOCATION, N.H. -- The champagne is on ice at the Notchland Inn on Route 302. Proprietors and longtime partners Ed and Les are ready to raise their glasses to New Hampshire today, now that the state has passed a broad civil union bill granting gay and lesbian couples virtually all the same legal rights as married heterosexuals.

The measure was approved along party lines in the Senate today with 14 Democrats voting for it and 10 Republicans voting against it.

Gov. John Lynch, a moderate Democrat, has said he will sign the bill. When he does, it will make New England the first region to have every state granting a measure of legal rights to same-sex couples. Even as the bulk of the country has passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and civil unions, New England has stubbornly gone its own way.

Advocates of gay rights say the latest milestone is especially significant because it comes in comparatively conservative New Hampshire, where polls have shown locals becoming more tolerant of same-sex unions after watching neighboring states pass similar laws without major social fallout.

"New Hampshire is probably the most important piece of the puzzle," said Les Schoof, 55, the former general manager of the American Ballet Theatre who opened a mountain inn here in 1993 with his partner, Democratic state Rep. Edward A. Butler, 57. "People in the rest of the country think about New England as the Socialist Republic of Vermont or those crazy liberals in Massachusetts. But they know that people in New Hampshire don't just jump on the bandwagon that easily."

To be sure, New England is made up of the bluest of the blue states. Decisions made here cannot categorically be taken as national bellwethers, and so far, 26 states have passed constitutional bans on same-sex marriage while 19 states have adopted similar statutes.

Nevertheless, opponents of same-sex marriage look at what is going on in New England and express growing concern. "The more states that do this, the less radical and more plausible the idea may appear in others," said Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council.

Advocates, meanwhile, see promise in New England's historical role as the conscience of the nation. States here were the first to embrace racial integration in schools and they abolished the death penalty for crimes such as robbery and burglary in the 19th century, before much of the rest of the country.

And they have taken the lead on same-sex couples. Vermont became the first state to offer civil unions in 2000. Connecticut followed suit in 2005, and its legislature is now pushing forward with a full gay-marriage bill that observers say could come to a final vote as early as June.

Massachusetts, after a 2003 Supreme Court ruling there, became the first state to allow same-sex marriage -- which differs from New Hampshire's civil unions largely in that it uses the highly symbolic word "marriage."

In February, Rhode Island's attorney general issued a landmark ruling that opened the door for residents there to legally marry in Massachusetts, effectively making it the second state to recognize same-sex marriage. Maine, meanwhile, has approved domestic partnerships. To date, nearby New Jersey is the only state outside New England to adopt an expansive civil union law.

The gradual spread of legal rights for same-sex couples from state to state is now seen as a model for the rest of the nation, particularly out West -- where Washington state last week followed California in passing a more limited domestic partnership law. A similar bill is pending in Oregon. In a sign that the momentum is expanding in the Northeast, New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D) said this week that he would send a gay-marriage bill to the legislature by late June.

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