Monday, March 23, 2009

Vermont on Track to Become Third State to Legalize Marriage for Same-Gender Couples

Bill That Would Replace the State's Nine-Year-Old, First-in-the-Nation Civil Union Law With Full Marriage Rights for Gay and Lesbian Couples Passes State Senate by Veto-Proof 26-4 Majority; Measure -- Fiercely Opposed by Vermont's GOP Governor -- Is Expected Win Final Approval by the House, But Can It Garner a Veto-Proof Majority There, Too?

Vermont state Senator Richard Sears, a Democrat from the town of Bennington, receives congratulations Friday at the State Capitol in Montpelier from Kathy Stickel, a resident of the town of South Royalton, after the five-member state Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to advance a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. Vermont, the first state to accord civil unions to gay and lesbian couples in 2000, would be the third state, after Massachusetts and Connecticut, to legalize same-gender marriage -- but the first to do so voluntarily, without prompting by a court ruling that banning such marriages is unconstitutional. (Photo: Tony Talbot/AP)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Monday, March 23, 2009)
(Updated 3:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday, March 24, 2009)




MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate gave its final approval Tuesday to a bill that would extend full marriage rights to same-gender couples.

By a voice vote -- with a few barely audible "nays" -- the measure moves on to the House, where passage is certain, but where doubts remain whether it can muster the two-thirds majority needed in the 150-member lower chamber to render moot a possible gubernatorial veto.

The House Judiciary Committee began taking testimony on the bill Tuesday afternoon. Testimony is expected to last a week or more before the full House will vote on the bill.

The rules of the Democratic-controlled Vermont Legislature require both chambers to vote twice on every bill. The same-gender marriage measure passed by an overwhelming 26-4 vote Monday in the Senate -- six votes more than a two-thirds majority in the 30-member upper chamber.

Governor Jim Douglas, a Republican, opposes the bill, but has declined to say if he would veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.



The Green Mountain State of Vermont is the second-smallest state in America, in terms of population (after Wyoming).

It's also the most rural state in the Northeast.

Burlington, Vermont's largest city, is the state's only bona fide metropolitan area, yet the city's entire population could fit inside the old, cavernous Yankee Stadium (which already has been demolished in advance of the opening of the new Yankee Stadium next month) and still leave about 20,000 empty seats left over.

And Vermont has one of the least diverse populations of any state in the Union -- over 97 percent of its 620,000 residents are white, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

But you would be mistaken to conclude that, given its demographics, Vermont would have a lot in common with the conservative states of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West.

On the contrary, Vermont -- which President Obama won in last November's election by an overwhelming 67 percent landslide -- is arguably the most politically and socially liberal state in the Union, in spite of having a relatively conservative (by Vermont standards) Republican governor (who ironically would be considered a liberal by the right-wing hard-liners who dominate the national GOP).

A newly-released survey on the religious affiliations of Americans found that Vermont has the nation's highest per capita concentration of people who have no religious affiliation at all -- 34 percent, a slight plurality over the state's largest religious denomination, Roman Catholics (33 percent).

But Vermont is hardly a hotbed of atheism -- far from it. If the personals ads in local newspapers and Web sites are any indication, most so-called "un-churched" Vermonters identify themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" or "other" -- including many adherents to Wicca and other neo-Pagan pathways.

Vermonters have a decades-long reputation for being fiercely independent in their politics and their sense of community, often defying conventional wisdom in the rest of the nation; they especially don't like being told what to do by outsiders.

(And in the interest of full disclosure, this writer -- a transplanted New York City native by way of California -- has called this often-cantankerous state home for nearly 15 years.)

That Vermont penchant for going its own way was made quite evident nine years ago, when -- prompted by a Vermont Supreme Court ruling that same-gender couples had a right under the state's gender-neutral constitution to the same benefits accorded married opposite-gender couples -- the Vermont Legislature passed a landmark, first-in-the-nation law according "civil unions" to such couples.


Now, after nearly a decade of witnessing their gay and lesbian neighbors tie the knot in civil unions, Vermonters appear poised to witness them do so in marriage, as a bill to accord full marriage rights to same-gender couples passed its first legislative hurdle last week, when it was approved unanimously by the five-member state Senate Judiciary Committee.

The advance of the bill on Friday to the full Senate came after a week of testimony -- including a packed public hearing Wednesday night before a joint session of the Senate and House judiciary panels that drew over 1,000 people -- as parents, religious leaders, civil rights experts and psychologists weighed in on the measure that would make Vermont the third state, after Massachusetts and Connecticut, to allow same-gender couples to marry.

However, unlike the other two New England states, Vermont would become the first state to voluntarily replace civil unions with same-gender marriage without prompting by a court ruling declaring flatly that anything short of full marriage rights for same-gender couples is unconstitutional -- a finding which the Vermont Supreme Court's 1999 ruling stopped short of declaring.

Part of the impetus for the same-gender marriage bill was the Connecticut Supreme Court's ruling last October that the Nutmeg State's three-year-old civil union law constituted "separate but equal" and thus violated the equal-treatment clause of the Connecticut Constitution.

That clause, patterned after the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prompted concerns that Vermont's own civil union law was constitutionally vulnerable under the Fourteenth Amendment and would not likely survive a federal court challenge. The preamble of the law includes an explicit declaration that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman; opposite-gender couples likewise cannot apply for a civil union.

(A lawsuit filed March 2 in U.S. District Court in Boston by six married same-gender Massachusetts couples and the widower of the late former U.S. Representative Gerry Studds is challenging the constitutionality of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, on the grounds that it violates the Fourteenth Amendment by depriving them of spousal benefits that married opposite-gender couples enjoy.)


Governor Jim Douglas, a Republican, has strongly come out against the bill, but hasn't said whether he would veto it if and when it reaches his desk. The full Vermont Senate is expected to vote on the bill later today (Monday).


Passage of the measure in the upper chamber is considered a foregone conclusion, given that the Senate approved the original civil union law in 2000 by a veto-proof two-thirds majority and later rejected by the same lopsided margin two constitutional amendments pushed by conservatives to overturn the law and ban any state recognition of same-gender unions.

This time, as many as 25 of the 30 senators -- an overwhelming supermajority of greater than 80 percent -- are likely to vote yes on the marriage bill.

The only real drama is expected to be in the Vermont House, not over whether the bill has enough votes to pass, but rather if it will pass by a veto-proof two-thirds majority -- a minimum of 101 votes in the 150-seat lower chamber. Although Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, they make up only 96 House members. Four additional representatives are members of the more liberal-leaning Progressive Party, while there are 45 Republicans and two independents.

For the same-gender marriage bill to win a veto-proof majority in the Vermont House, it would need the support of every Democrat and Progressive, plus at least one independent or a Republican.


Supporters of the bill were hopeful. "I feel a step closer," Diane Shamas of Westminster West, Vermont, told The Times Argus of Montpelier, the state capital. "But I also know this isn't over. It's a long process." Shamas and her civil union partner, Bari, were present to witness Friday's vote at the State House, as Vermont's capitol building is officially called.

Beth Robinson, the attorney who successfully argued the 1999 case in the Vermont Supreme Court that paved the way for passage of the state's landmark civil union law, told reporters at an impromptu press conference after the vote that the measure's passage by the committee "the next leg of a journey" for the advancement of gay and lesbian Vermonters' civil and constitutional rights that began 15 years earlier when the Legislature passed a comprehensive gay anti-discrimination bill that then-Governor Howard Dean signed into law.

"This vote is certainly encouraging," said Robinson, a co-founder of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force. "But I don't want to assume this is a done deal. We have a lot more education to do."

But while supporters of the bill were hopeful, opponents were angry.

Steven Cable, an outspoken opponent not only of the same-gender marriage bill, but also of the existing civil union law, denounced Friday's judiciary committee vote as "an outrage" and vowed to target committee members from Rutland County for defeat in the next legislative election in 2010.

He heaped particular scorn on state Senator Kevin Mullin, a Rutland County Republican, who sponsored an amendment Friday that would have placed a non-binding referendum on the the same-gender marriage question before the state's voters at next year's annual municipal elections. The amendment was rejected, 4-1.

Mullin later voted in favor of the bill itself, angering Cable. "I think the voters in Rutland County will be extremely upset with Senator Mullin," he said.


Wednesday night's public hearing on the same-gender marriage bill drew over 1,000 Vermonters to the House of Representative chamber in the State House. But in marked contrast to the highly emotional arguments put forth by both sides in 2000 over the original civil union bill, the debate of the marriage measure was remarkably civil.

While opponents of the measure cited religious and moral grounds as their primary reasons for opposing it, there was very little of the provocative fire-and-brimstone rhetoric that angered civil union supporters nine years ago.

And while opponents vastly outspent supporters in media campaigns over the civil union measure in 2000, this time, it was the other way around -- and even so, the media campaign has been much more subdued, even polite.

Still, some opponents -- particularly religious conservatives -- were undaunted. They insisted the proposed measure upends the natural order of life they say is created by God. Changing the definition of marriage, opponents said, would destroy the sanctity of heterosexual marriages.

Other religious opponents accused the lawmakers of "violating the will of God" by passing the bill and and repeatedly cited the Bible as a higher authority than the state.

That prompted Brad Peacock, a resident of the town of Shaftsbury and an outspoken supporter of the bill, to pointedly remind the lawmakers of their oath of office to uphold both the U.S. and Vermont Constitutions and of the constitutional separation of church and state.

"You put your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution," Peacock said. "You did not put your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible." Peacock's remark drew loud applause from the bill's supporters.


Other religious leaders who oppose same-gender marriage testified of their concerns that the measure would force religious communities to perform same-gender marriages in violation of their religious principles and that their institutions would be sued if they refused to do so.

But Senator John Campbell, the vice-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a lead sponsor of the same-gender marriage bill, pointed out that the measure contains a provision exempting religious institutions from performing same-gender weddings against their principles and shielding them from any legal action against them for refusing to perform such ceremonies.

"This is a civil marriage statute," Campbell, a Democrat from the town of Windsor who's a Catholic, said. "It has nothing to do with religious marriage ceremonies."


Governor Douglas has been outspoken in his opposition to the bill, arguing that the existing civil union law is sufficient and that the marriage measure is not needed. He has also made clear his belief that marriage should be reserved exclusively for opposite-gender couples.

But while Douglas made it clear that he would not sign the measure into law if it reaches his desk, he has refused to say publicly whether he would veto it -- setting up an expected drama in the House on whether the bill can muster a veto-proof two-thirds majority.

If the measure does garner a two-thirds vote in the House, as well as in the Senate as expected, pressure will likely be brought to bear on Douglas to allow the bill to become law without his signature, rather than risk a veto override.

A similar situation arose in 2007, when the Legislature passed by overwhelming margins in both houses a bill to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana. Douglas opposed the measure, but allowed it to become law without his signature, conceding that his veto would be easily overridden. Nonetheless, Douglas issued an executive order to the Vermont State Police not to interfere with federal anti-marijuana enforcement. Medical marijuana use remains illegal under federal law.

However, Attorney General Eric Holder, in a reversal of Bush administration policy, announced late last week that the federal government would no longer prosecute medical marijuana cases in states where its use is legal under state law -- so long as medical marijuana distribution programs operated in full compliance with those laws and did not venture into activities that remain illegal under both state and federal drug laws.

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Volume IV, Number 23
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Dana said...

I LUV VERMONT! Beautiful land and sensible people, what more can you ask for? It is wonderful that the Legislature is smart enough to recognize that "separate" can never be "equal." Vermont is a progressive bellwether and we are lucky to have their example of courage and integrity for the entire nation.