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Republicans Flex Majority Muscle In Votes On Abortion, Gun Rights, Religious Liberty

N.H. State House
Dan Tuohy / NHPR

In a series of party-line votes Tuesday, Republican lawmakers on a key Senate committee pushed through a range of conservative policy priorities, from limiting abortion rights, to expanding religious liberties, to broadening gun rights.

While the bills approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee have a ways to go before becoming law, Tuesday’s votes were a stark illustration of the willingness of the Legislature’s new Republican majority to advance conservative proposals that had failed in previous years, even under earlier eras of GOP control in the State House.

Democrats on the committee, while lacking the votes to stall the bills’ progress, largely decried the measures as extreme and out of keeping with public sentiment.

The partisan divide was perhaps strongest on a bill that would outlaw abortions after 24 weeks into a pregnancy, except in cases where the mother’s life was at risk. Doctors who perform abortions after that point could be charged with a felony and subject to prison time. Sen. Becky Whitley of Hopkinton argued the bill was extreme, and more in keeping with the national debate over abortion than with New Hampshire’s longstanding tolerance of abortion rights.

“I think it’s particularly extreme and troubling because of its very limited exceptions, including for the health of the fetus, and none for instances of rape of incest,” Whitley said. “That takes my breath away.”

Republican Sen. Sharon Carson of Londonderry, who chairs the committee, noted that gestational limits on abortion rights have been debated before, and that the desire to tighten access to abortion is homegrown.

“This is not the nationalization of this issue.” Carson said.

The 3-2 party line vote sends the bill to the Senate floor, where both sides expect a pitched debate. Gov. Chris Sununu, who considers himself supportive of abortion rights, has yet to weigh in on the proposal.

New Hampshire does not keep statistics on abortion, so it’s not possible to say how many are done after the 24 week limit in the bill advanced Tuesday, but providers say that are rarely necessary. New Hampshire is one of a handful of states that currently have no gestational limit on abortions. Other than a parental notification law and a ban on so-called “partial birth” procedures, New Hampshire has few limits on the right to an abortion.

Religious liberties, gun rights

The votes were also party-line Tuesday on a plan to exempt the display of a firearm from the state’s reckless conduct statute. Democrats argued that allowing people to brandish guns or point to a holstered weapon could escalate bad situations. Republicans said expressly permitting the practice makes sense.

“Like in the major case we all saw on every news thing -- the people in front of their house,” Sandown Sen. Bill Gannon said, in apparent reference to the couple who brandished guns in front of their St. Louis mansion during a 2020 Black Lives Matters protest. “They just wanted to be able to display that they could protect their castle.”

Another bill passed by the committee would allow worshippers to attend religious services during a state of emergency. Sununu used emergency powers to limit public indoor worship during the height of the pandemic, but he has since signaled an openness to more permissive standards during future emergencies.

This bill defines houses of worship as “essential” during emergencies but requires them to follow health guidance. It pares back a similar proposal recently passed by the GOP-controlled House.

Prior to the party-line vote on the measure, Rick Lehmann, the Senate’s legal counsel, made clear it was crafted with viability in mind.

“This was believed to be able to get 13 votes in the Senate and be enforced by the Attorney General, and potentially become law should the governor choose to sign it.” Lehmann said.

Sununu’s comfort with these bills, all crafted and championed by members of his own party, is a key question. Their first test will be a vote by the full Senate Thursday.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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