CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire lawmakers on Wednesday rejected a bill that would have made their state legislature the first one to repeal a gay marriage law, handing gay-rights supporters a key victory in the Northeast, where same-sex marriage is prevalent.
The state House voted 211-116 to kill the measure, ending a push by its new Republican majority to rescind New Hampshire's 2-year-old gay marriage law. Nevertheless, both sides are pledging to continue fighting into the fall elections.
Repeal opponents hoped to solidify what they argue is public support for gay marriage, while supporters hoped to reverse the law in a region of the country where gay-rights groups have strength.
"Today is a banner day for the freedom to marry," said Craig Stowell, co-chairman of Standing up For New Hampshire Families. Stowell said the House, where Republicans hold a 189-seat advantage, was supposed to give conservatives their best shot at repeal. "They blew it. This was supposed to be the most favorable legislative climate for repeal and they couldn't even get a majority."
The Republican-backed bill called for repealing gay marriage in March 2013 and replacing it with a civil unions law that had been in place in 2008 and 2009. Gay marriages occurring before the repeal took effect would have remained valid, but future gay unions would have been civil unions. The bill also would have allowed voters to weigh in on the issue through a nonbinding November ballot question.
Tom Czapieo, 63, of Keene, watched the House debate from the gallery with his partner, Mike Bellrose, 61. Czapieo said he was surprised and thrilled by the vote, even though he and Bellerose have no immediate plans to marry.
"I was born this way. I should have the right to marry who I want," he said.
Bellrose noted that the House session began with the Pledge of allegiance, and quoted the ending passage: "with liberty and justice for all."
"This certainly is a big step toward that," Bellerose said.
Eleanor Vander Haegen, 71, of Keene, married her partner of 22 years in January 2010.
"It's such a significant recognition of our human rights," she said of the vote.
If the House passed the repeal measure following its two hours of debate, it would have gone to the Senate; both houses are controlled by Republicans. Democratic Gov. John Lynch had promised to veto the bill if it had reached his desk.
An attempt to strip out a provision in the legislation calling for voters to weigh in on the issue in November in a nonbinding ballot question was rejected, helping to seal the bill's fate since some lawmakers objected that with a 400-member House, lawmakers should be able to make those decisions themselves.
State Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, said he had opposed gay marriage, but the time for a repeal was past because "the Legislature has given certain rights to members of our community and now we're being asked to take them away."
The National Organization for Marriage has pledged to spend $250,000 to help lawmakers running for re-election who support repealing the law. On the other side, the New Hampshire Republicans of Freedom and Equality PAC is raising money to back Republicans who vote to retain it.
Democrats enacted both the civil unions and gay marriage laws when they controlled the Legislature, and Lynch signed both. After Republicans took control of the House and Senate in 2010, repeal legislative was introduced, but held over until this year. In Wednesday's fight, Republicans took the lead on both sides of the debate.
The repeal legislation, sponsored by state Rep. David Bates, would ensure the 1,906 existing same-sex marriages would remain valid if the gay marriage law is repealed. Bates said it would replace the current "illegitimate definition" of marriage with one defining it as between one man and one woman.
Bates tried in vain to convince the House that supporting traditional marriage did not make someone a bigot.
State Rep. Warren Groen, R-Rochester, argued allowing gays to marry opened up the definition of marriage to polygamists and others with non-traditional lifestyles.
"We are indeed on a slippery slope," Groen said.
Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, Washington and the District of Columbia. New Jersey lawmakers recently passed a gay marriage bill, but the governor vetoed it. An override vote could come as late as January 2014.
Since 1998, 31 states have had ballot measures related to same-sex marriage, and opponents have prevailed in every state. Those states include Maine, where voters in 2009 rejected the state's gay-marriage law.
Last month, a federal appeals court declared California's same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional. The ruling could mean the bitterly contested, voter-approved law will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Associated Press writer Holly Ramer contributed to this report.