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New Hampshire Bill Would Legalize Discrimination By Any Business

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Republicans in the New Hampshire legislature are pushing a bill that would legalize discrimination against any couple if a person or business claims that the couple’s relationship violates their conscience or religion.

The bill states an individual would not be held responsible for denying services that relate to “the solemnization, celebration, or promotion of a marriage and providing such services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges [that] would be a violation of the person’s conscience or religious faith.” That language leaves the legislation dangerously vague.

At first glance, it may seem to be targeted at allowing Evangelical Christians who are opposed to same-sex marriage from being open to discrimination lawsuits. Yet, it would allow someone to claim their religion as a way to discriminate against any group while citing religious protection. A landlord could likely refuse to rent an apartment to a mixed religion couple or an atheist couple, for instance.

Democrats in the state have been quick to oppose the measure.

"A Protestant baker could refuse to bake a cake for a Catholic wedding," New Hampshire Democratic Party spokesman Harrell Kirstein said. "This fosters lawsuits. What happened to the [Republican] promise of focusing on jobs and the economy? The only jobs this creates is for lawyers."

Some of the anxiety stems from controversy in the nearby state of New York, where a town clerk is facing challenges from a lesbian couple to whom she refused to issue a marriage license. Like New Hampshire and most other states where same-sex marriages are legal, religious institutions are not required to perform ceremonies. Yet, in New York, it did not state explicitly what the procedure is for an official like a town clerk who cites religion as a reason not to do her job—issuing a license to a same gender couple.

“There are some religions that still believe that African-Americans and Caucasians shouldn't be able to marry,” New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Claire Ebel told the Associated Press. “They would be allowed to discriminate against them under this bill.”

Same-sex unions are legal in New Hampshire and there is no reported account of any couples bringing legal challenges claiming they were discriminated based on their relationship.

The legislation is almost identical to a bill that was brought forward in the Iowa state House last year. That bill failed to ever come to a vote, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa similarly said it was “an effort to legitimize discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.” It was quickly opposed by Democrats and a coalition of civil rights groups.

The Eagle Tribune notes this bill in New Hampshire would likely not pass constitutional muster and is simply another way to chip at LGBT rights if same-sex marriages are not repealed.

State Rep. Frank Sapareto (R), a co-sponsor of the measure, said:

There are a lot of angry people out there. I’m being called a jerk, a bigot, a hypocrite all because I believe individuals should be able to conscientiously object to playing a role in a marriage that’s not consistent with their beliefs. … People say I am denying rights and promoting hate. What about the rights of people who object to this?

One of the other sponsors of the bill, state Rep. Jerry Bergevin (R), is no stranger to controversy.

Earlier this month, he made headlines for a bills he sponsored to prevent the teaching of evolution in classrooms.

"I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the ideas to be presented. It's a worldview and it's godless,” Bergevin told the Concord Monitor. “Atheism has been tried in various societies, and they've been pretty criminal domestically and internationally. The Soviet Union, Cuba, the Nazis, China today: they don't respect human rights. As a general court we should be concerned with criminal ideas like this and how we are teaching it. … Columbine, remember that? They were believers in evolution. That's evidence right there.”

New Hampshire is also considering bills aimed at preventing the use of cologne by state employees at work and to establish a plan for the state government if the federal government was unable to function—such as in the case of a nuclear strike on Washington, DC.

The bill to legalize discrimination went before its first hearing last week. It has not yet been scheduled for a vote.

Tyler Kingkade is a staff writer with Campus Progress. Keep up with him on Twitter @tylerkingkade.

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