The New Hampshire Senate voted, 13-11, today to allow adult same-sex couples to marry, approving an amended version of a House-passed bill after a vote to kill the legislation altogether failed by the same margin.
The bill passed by the Senate recognizes a distinction between civil and religious marriages and allows religious denominations to decide whether they will conduct religious marriages for gay or lesbian couples. Civil marriages would be available to both heterosexual and same-sex couples under the law. “This bill recognizes the sanctity of religious marriage and the diversity of religious beliefs about marriage while still providing equal access to civil marriage to all New Hampshire citizens,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, an Exeter Democrat.
There's an important fact present in this story that normally you never hear, and another important fact that's missing from this one. The recognition of a distinction between civil and religious marriages, and the inability of the government to force churches' hands on marriage, is an extremely important point in the general debate, and it's wonderful to be seeing it in a newspaper for once. I don't know if that language is a peculiarity of the bill or if the reporter is just taking the extra time to explain that point, but kudos to whichever one is responsible.
What's missing, and what makes the previous important point kind of funny, is that in practice this distinction exists in the marriage laws of all states. Unless I'm mistaken, nowhere is it law that a church is obligated to marry people it doesn't want to. This is why, for instance, clergy can insist that the groom and/or bride belong to their church, or attend the church's own pre-marriage counseling, or do the ceremony how the church wants it or whatever other prerequisites they want. If you don't like it, you can always go to the courthouse. Nor do churches have to recognize marriages performed by other churches or the JP. Nor, for that matter, does a ceremony performed at a church automatically create a legal union if that union is precluded by state law.
The only difference is whether or not gays can have a civil marriage.