CONCORD, N.H. - Even as same-sex marriage made gains on the West Coast last week with victories in two states, New Hampshire legislators appear poised to repeal the state’s 2 1/2-year-old gay marriage law within the coming weeks.
While Governor John Lynch has promised a veto, the renewed debate illustrates how volatile the issue of same-sex marriage remains in New England and across the country, even in states where it appears to be settled law.
In Maine, activists are seeking to place a gay marriage referendum on the November ballot, asking voters to reinstate the law three years after they repealed it. Advocates in Rhode Island plan to reintroduce legislation to allow gay marriage after suffering a defeat last year despite backing by both the governor and speaker of the House.
Meanwhile, in Maryland and New Jersey, bills to legalize same sex-marriage are expected to receive legislative approval, with opponents vowing to seek referendums in November to overturn the laws. In North Carolina and Minnesota, voters are expected to vote on proposed amendments to ban gay marriage.
Both sides see hope in the shifting landscape, saying momentum is on their side.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage, said any legislative victories this year would be porous, with popular votes likely to overturn them.
“There will be a lot of ballot initiatives on election day 2012, and we’ve never lost,’’ he said. “There have been 31 popular votes and we’ve won every one.’’
Stuart Gaffney, spokesman for Marriage Equality, a national group that backs gay marriage, said, “We’ve seen more forward movement on marriage equality than on any other civil rights issue. We’ve seen support grow by leaps and bounds.’’
Two of those leaps took place last week when a federal appeals court ruled that a voter-backed initiative barring gay marriage in California was not constitutional; this decision could ultimately end up before the Supreme Court. In Washington state, the governor is poised to sign a gay marriage bill into law today after it won final legislative approval Wednesday.
Currently, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and the District of Columbia permit gay marriage.
Boosting the temperature of the debates is the presidential election campaign. The leading Republican contenders - Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich - oppose gay marriage. President Obama last week said he is still “evolving’’ on the issue.
New England is viewed as the nation’s bulwark of gay marriage: Massachusetts was first to allow it, with the first weddings taking place in 2004. Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont followed suit.
But Maine voters overturned their law permitting same-sex marriage months after its passage in 2009 and now, New Hampshire legislators appear poised to overturn their law of the same year, passed when Democrats controlled both houses. Republicans gained control of New Hampshire’s Legislature in 2010, though it is not clear they could overturn the governor’s promised veto.
Last year, New Hampshire legislators held a hearing on the proposed repeal of gay marriage, but tabled a vote, citing the need to focus on the budget. By law, the bill must come up for a vote this year, though the speaker has not yet scheduled a date.
A recent poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed that support for gay marriage remains relatively strong. Fifty-nine percent of those polled said they are either strongly or somewhat opposed to repealing the gay marriage law, while 32 percent said they back repeal. Another 8 percent are neutral or don’t know. The poll results are largely unchanged from those of a year ago.
Supporters of same-sex marriage say the poll results underscore that people in New Hampshire support a practice already underway.
“People in New Hampshire don’t want to take rights way,’’ said Tyler Deaton, spokesman for Standing Up for New Hampshire Families, which backs gay marriage in New Hampshire. “There are over 1,800 couples who have married. It’s working out - the law is widely popular.’’
Representative David Bates, sponsor of the bill repealing gay marriage, said New Hampshire residents are leery of expanding the definition of marriage.
“Marriage is clearly a vital aspect of our society and we need to be very careful when we are considering altering something with such far-reaching consequences,’’ said Bates, citing no-fault divorce as an example of a policy change that resulted in larger problems.
Maine’s repeal of legislatively approved gay marriage passed with 53 percent in favor, and 47 percent against repeal. But supporters of gay marriage say they have worked to change sentiment, going house to house and talking with voters about the issue.
They say that holding the vote in a presidential election year, too, will boost their chances of reversing the repeal, because more and younger voters tend to turn out for the quadrennial election.
“We wouldn’t have made this decision [to put the matter to a vote] unless we felt we had a really good chance to win,’’ said Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, which backs gay marriage.
Because of a reporting error, a Page One story in Monday’s paper about the gay marriage battle in several states misstated the results of a Maine referendum on repealing its gay marriage law in 2009. Fifty-three percent voted for repeal and 47 percent against.