By GARRETT BRNGER
CONCORD, N.H. – Florists, caterers and other wedding-related businesses could turn away engaged gay couples under legislation before the House that opponents likened to segregation and Nazi Germany’s race laws.
The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing Tuesday on the bill, which would allow providers of wedding-related goods or services to withhold those services if they believe doing business with gay couples would violate their conscience or religious faith. The bill also would bar lawsuits against business owners in such situations.
Bill sponsor Rep. Jerry Bergevin, R-Manchester, called it a “business protection bill” and said a person’s personal religious beliefs should receive protection in his or her capacity as a service provider.
Noting that New Hampshire protects against discrimination based on both religion and sexual orientation, Bergevin asked, “How do you strike a balance between them?”
State Rep. Cynthia Chase, D-Keene, called the bill “codified discrimination” and the beginning of a “slippery slope.”
“When you begin to codify things for one group, pretty soon it’s OK for that group, and then that group,” Chase said.
Although the bill was presented in reference to gay marriage, opponents said allowing a “person’s conscience or religious faith,” as the bill reads, to determine whom they serve would open the door to discrimination against inter-faith and inter-racial couples, too.
“There are some religions that still believe that African-Americans and Caucasians shouldn’t be able to marry. They would be allowed to discriminate against them under this bill,” said New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Claire Ebel.
New Hampshire’s gay marriage law already exempts churches and religious groups from being forced to officiate gay marriages or provide services, facilities and goods of any kind to participants. The bill would provide the same protections to individuals, which gay marriage opponents sought in 2009.
At the time, then-state Senate Democratic Leader Maggie Hassan of Exeter said she had heard of no legal challenges filed by gays over businesses refusing to provide services for their civil unions in the 17 months civil unions had been legal in New Hampshire. No cases were mentioned in Tuesday’s hearing either.
The committee has not issued a recommendation on the bill. Once they make a recommendation, the bill will move to the full House for a vote.
Another bill facing a vote in the coming weeks would repeal gay marriage and replace it with civil unions of any two adults, including relatives. It would also allow individuals to refuse their services for a civil union’s’ ceremony and to refuse to treat the civil union as valid if it conflicted with their religious or moral beliefs.