By Ros Krasny
BOSTON (Reuters) - New Hampshire lawmakers easily defeated a bill on Wednesday that would have been the first step toward reversing the state's law that allows same-sex couples to marry.
The attempt to repeal a law that made gay marriages legal in the state, failed by a vote of 116-211 in the Republican-controlled legislature, drawing applause from many lawmakers in the historic statehouse in Concord.
Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, had promised to veto the bill if it reached his desk.
State lawmakers approved civil unions in 2007 and same-sex marriages in 2009, when both houses in the state legislature were controlled by Democrats.
Close to 2,000 gay and lesbian couples have been married in New Hampshire since the current law went into effect January 1, 2010. The new law would have replaced same-sex marriages with civil unions starting in 2013, but marriages that took place before the repeal would have remained valid.
That provision drew a rebuke from Jennifer Coffey, a Republican lawmaker who opposed the repeal.
"This body has set in motion a ping-pong ball on people's lives," Coffey said during the two-hour floor debate.
The bill's main sponsor was state Rep. David Bates, a Republican from Windham, who on Wednesday said that marriage equality would ruin society.
A poll taken in late January by the University of New Hampshire's survey center showed 59 percent of voters were against repealing gay marriage in New Hampshire, whose state motto is "live free or die."
Some 100 Republicans were among the legislators to vote against the bill.
"After the last election where Republicans gained control of both the House and the Senate, some thought that marriage equality was doomed. But many, many Republicans courageously stood up against repeal," said Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), a legal rights organization based in Boston.
Ahead of the vote, more than 126,000 people signed an internet petition on the website Change.org, urging state lawmakers to leave the current law in place.
The campaign was started by Craig Stowell, a former Marine and Iraq War veteran from Claremont, New Hampshire, who is co-chair of Standing Up for New Hampshire Families.
"Today is a banner day for the freedom to marry," said Craig Stowell, whose brother, Calvin, is gay.
Among the backers of Bates' legislation was the Washington-based group National Organization for Marriage, which vowed after the vote to "hold legislators accountable."
"This is a sad day for New Hampshire families," Brian Brown, president of NOM, said in a statement.
With the defeat of the repeal attempt, New Hampshire remains one of six U.S. states plus the District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal. The others are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont. Washington state and Maryland have approved gay marriage but the laws have not yet gone into effect.
New Jersey's legislature approved same sex marriage but Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed it. California continues to hash out the constitutionality of same-sex marriage in the courts.
(Reporting By Ros Krasny; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Greg McCune)