STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Today in New Hampshire, the Senate votes on a bill to allow same sex civil unions. That measure is expected to pass. And if it does, the state long known for unyielding conservatism would become only the fourth to grant gay and lesbian couples all the rights of marriage.
New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers has more.
JOSH ROGERS: New Hampshire is never been accused of having a modest sense of self, and as the civil unions debate move to the legislature, arguments for and against often return to the state's well-tended image as a bastion of personal liberty.
Representative DANA HILLIARD (Democrat, New Hampshire): People have a right to seek happiness.
ROGERS: Democrat Dana Hilliard is co-sponsor of the civil unions measure.
Rep. HILLIARD: Live free or die. That really identifies us as New Hampshire citizens to anyone else in the rest of the world. That if you're not going to be given these things, then you're better off taking death.
ROGERS: Republican Joe Kenney is among the senators who will vote against the bill.
Senator JOE KENNEY (Republican, New Hampshire): I want to keep New Hampshire New Hampshire. And I think that this is not mainstream New Hampshire that really believes in civil unions. So I'm very concerned that we're headed down the wrong path.
ROGERS: But state recognition of same sex relationships is increasingly the regional norm. Since Vermont enacted civil unions seven years ago, Connecticut and New Jersey have followed suit. Massachusetts is the only state to allow gay marriage. New Hampshire Senate President Sylvia Larsen says giving legal recognition to same-sex relationships regardless of where they were formalized is overdue and far from extreme.
Senator SYLVIA LARSON (Democrat, New Hampshire; Senate President): Once you get over the hurdle of what seems to be a shocking development, the truth is those in committed married relationships, it doesn't affect them. It just eliminates discrimination.
ROGERS: Few, however, believe the issue would have stood any chance of becoming law had Democrats not claimed the governor's office and legislative majorities for the first time since the 19th century. And as it happened, the prime trend to civil unions adoption didn't come from Republicans whose state party platform opposes them but from John Lynch, New Hampshire's popular Democratic governor.
Lynch had been or record against gay marriage for several years but had repeatedly declined to offer an opinion on civil unions. That finally changed late last week.
Governor JOHN LYNCH (Democrat, New Hampshire): Well, you know, I'm opposed to gay marriage. But again, I think having civil unions and having that opportunity really is a strong statement that we are opposed to discrimination here in New Hampshire, and we'll do what we can to prevent discrimination.
ROGERS: Top Republicans, meanwhile, hopes civil unions will become a rallying point for their party in 2008. State GOP chairman Fergus Cullen says legalizing civil unions will cost plenty in the electorate to reconsider the wisdom of letting Democrats at New Hampshire's State House agenda.
Mr. FERGUS CULLEN (Chairman, GOP, New Hampshire): Governor Lynch and the New Hampshire Democrats are going too far too fast. They are over-reading their mandate from the election last fall, which is about the war in Iraq, not about New Hampshire's social policy. And Governor Lynch has showed that he's either unable or unwilling to restrain the left wing of his party.
ROGERS: But Andy Smith of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center says poll show Granite Stators care far more about school funding and health care than they do about gay unions.
Mr. ANDY SMITH (Director, University of New Hampshire Survey Center): For most people in the state, it's not that big of a deal. In fact, it typically is in the one percent or less range in terms of the importance to the public places on this problem.
ROGERS: The New Hampshire Senate is slated to vote on civil unions later today. Staffers say extra security will be posted in the Senate gallery to contend with what's expected to be a heavy public turnout.
For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord, New Hampshire.
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